I feel like this book repeatedly murdered me and alchemically raised me from the dead, because let’s be honest, it pretty much took over my life for a few days. It’s fun and smart and well-written and thoughtful and diverse and I just wish I had a physical copy so I could hug it because my heart feels so warm and full right now thinking about these characters and their stories.
I went into this with pretty high expectations—considering the hype it got from ALL of my friends—and I was not disappointed. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue follows the story of Henry (“Monty”) Montague, his best friend
and secret crush Percy Newton, and his younger sister Felicity. The three teenagers set off on a Grand Tour of Europe, which is basically the eighteenth-century equivalent of rich kids taking a gap year before college to go backpacking. In theory, they’re meant to be having a life-changing educational and cultural experience…but in reality, there’s a lot of drinking and poor life-decision-making. As you might imagine, the characters—well, mostly Monty—manage to get themselves into a series of misadventures and nearly cause an international incident, all the while learning more about themselves and each other AND having some really top-notch and honest conversations about gender, disability, and sexuality!!!!!!!
Trigger warning for: alcoholism, parental abuse, homophobia, racism, ableism, and epilepsy.
I love these three fictional humans with all of my alchemically dead heart, so this section will be a largely incoherent collection of some of my thoughts on them:
- an obnoxious shit, but I love him anyway
- “I’m unencumbered with excessive stature” is my new favorite euphemism for “I’m short.”
- has cute dimples and is not afraid to use them
- gets called out by his sister and friend for being incredibly ignorant of his privileged whiteness, maleness, and wealth
- despite his privilege, the struggles he faces with abuse, PTSD, and homophobia are not downplayed: the book makes a point of showing that nobody’s suffering is invalid
- is so relentlessly kind and thoughtful that he deserves all of the hugs in the world
- has hands that are described as the human equivalent of puppy paws so if that doesn’t prove how soft and nice he is idk what does
- is a music nerd
- lives with epilepsy, but his illness does not define him or have to prevent him from having a good life
- “it takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends” (he’s nice but that doesn’t mean he lets people walk all over him or let his friends get away with saying offensive/problematic stuff)
- pretends to read smut at the breakfast table, iconic
- also reads pretty much everywhere, relatable
- sews her own wounds shut with no anesthetics and no complaints
- is only fifteen but has her shit together way more than I ever will
- grabs eighteenth-century gender norms by the throat and tells them to gtfo
I absolutely LOVE books that combine travel and history (*cough* Passenger), and I was especially excited to see how some of the cities I’ve personally visited were represented in eighteenth-century historical fiction. The plot intertwined with all of the different locations in fun and interesting ways, and ended up being much more intriguing and mysterious than I’d expected. There were a few moments around the middle of the book where it seemed to drag a bit (this may have also been a side effect of the reading slump I was in at the time), but the characters still held my interest, and it wasn’t long before it picked back up again.
Alright, if any of you know anything about me, you know that I am incredibly picky about romance. I cannot stand poorly developed or overly cheesy relationships or *shudders* angsty love triangles, so you know when I say I ship it the romance has to be pretty good.
Percy and Monty’s relationship is basically a collection of so many romantic tropes (slow burn best friends to lovers, secretly in love the whole time, charming playboy in love with quiet friend, etc.) but they’re all SO well done. I don’t think I can really elaborate further without being spoiler-y and/or devolving into a puddle of feelings, just know that my face while I was reading looked something like this:
Also, do yourself a favor and take a look at this beautiful work of art:
(credits to Tori Ryan on Twitter)
THE THEMES AND DIVERSITY
One of this book’s greatest strengths is how well it portrays characters grappling with both their own and other people’s discrimination and biases. Monty struggles to understand Percy’s illness, the racial discrimination he experiences, and how to support his friend. Felicity strives to better comprehend Monty’s sexuality, and recognize that his attractions to both men and women are not something he can control. Both of the boys overlook the ways in which Felicity is barred from having a traditional education or professional career on account of her gender. All of these characters fuck up sometimes. They say things that are offensive or insensitive, and they lack the words or knowledge to easily articulate their own identities and situations. But they also learn from these mistakes. They never justify the discriminatory systems in place in their society, and they overcome their own prejudices to arrive at a place of mutual understanding and support. This is a rare historical fiction book about the people who are so often erased in both this genre and real-life historical accounts and narratives. It’s a reminder that LGBTQ+, disabled, and POC people have always existed, and their stories have always been worthy of telling.
I usually feel like a book’s writing has specific strengths, certain aspects of the story that it feels better suited for—but in this book it’s fantastically versatile. Lee’s writing style has an authentic-feeling voice, dialogue that will make you both laugh and cry, and a sprinkling of beautiful descriptions that are powerful and sincere. I absolutely adored this book, and I can’t wait to read more from her in the future.
Favorite quotes: (minor spoilers)
The great tragic love story of Percy and me is neither great nor truly a love story, and is tragic only for its single-sidedness. It is also not an epic monolith that has plagued me since boyhood, as might be expected. Rather, it is simply the tale of how two people can be important to each other their whole lives, and then, one morning, quite without meaning to, one of them wakes to find that importance has been magnified into a sudden and intense desire to put his tongue in the other’s mouth.
A small shift in the gravity between us and suddenly all my stars are out of alignment, planets knocked from their orbits, and I’m left stumbling, without map or heading, through the bewildering territory of being in love with your best friend.
Sunrise is a spilled glass of wine across the horizon, stars fading back into imaginary things.
My head’s higher than his, but we’re close enough that I can see the freckles beneath his eyes. If I had to pick a favorite part of Percy’s face—which would be impossible, really, but if held at gunpoint and forced to make a selection—it would be that small star-map across his skin. A part of him it feels as though no one else but me is ever close enough to see.
“I swear, you would play the coquette with a well-upholstered sofa.”
“First, I would not. And second, how handsome is the sofa?”
It is impossible to explain how you can love someone so much that it’s difficult to be around him. And with Percy sitting there, half in shadow, his hair loose and his long legs and those eyes I could have lived and died in, it feels like there’s a space inside me that is so bright it burns.
Percy blows a sigh from his nose. The single errant curl about his ear flutters. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to go courting trouble, is all.”
“We’re not courting trouble,” I say. “Flirting with it, at most.”
Felicity looks over at me and scowls. “What’s that face for?”
“You look put out.”
“Just thinking about all that blood.” I nearly shudder. “Doesn’t it make you a bit squeamish?”
“Ladies haven’t the luxury of being squeamish about blood,” she replies, and Percy and I go fantastically red in unison.
The waves carry her skirts behind her like ink spilled from a pot.
We are not broken things, neither of us. We are cracked pottery mended with lacquer and flakes of gold, whole as we are, complete unto each other. Complete and worthy and so very loved.
“May I kiss you?” I ask.
“Abso-bloody-lutely you may,” he says.
And so I do.
This review also appears on Goodreads.