Mackenzi Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is ripe for film or TV adaptation and is something I totally would have loved reading as a teenager. However, I am older than Lee’s target audience and still enjoyed the ride, but with some prudish gasps and doubts interspersed here and there.
Guide is the story of young Henry Montague, the oldest son of an earl, bound for the traditional continental tour young men would take prior to settling down, with his best friend Percy (with whom he is totally and secretly in love) and his sister Felicity (with whom he has little natural rapport). Henry is a bit of a rake and an embarrassing one at that – at least to his brute of a father. After having been expelled from Eton for dalliances with young men, Lord Disley has given Henry an ultimatum (and a chaperone) – take your European tour and behave for the full year and come home to take over the estate, OR, don’t come back at all and be dead to the family. Percy is headed for law school in Amsterdam and Felicity is headed for finishing school in Marseilles – and none of the parties seem all that enthused about their plans. Well, as it turns out Henry is sullen and resentful from years of abuse both physical and emotional, and ends up making quite a scene at Versailles one night early in the tour. This also entails stealing something from the Duke of Bourbon’s chambers at the palace – a childish act to spite a Duke who offended him that will end up turning the teens’ European vacation into a grail quest of sorts throughout Europe and a run for their lives.
I enjoyed this novel but only after I got to the part where Henry’s thoughtlessness gets the group in trouble. The early portion of the novel, where Henry drones on and on about the things he’d like to do to Percy and how much he loved him seemed a little melodramatic for me, but I think perhaps it’s because I’ve outgrown that stage. I remember how obsessive crushes (and genuine feelings) could be at eighteen, but I have passed wanting to read about it for chapters on end. This novel takes place in the 1700s in Europe and I can’t pretend that my history lessons have stuck with me long enough to judge how anachronistic any of the language or situations would be. I am especially unfamiliar with how homosexuality was treated back then in Europe. As an American I have this view that in France especially, there was a laissez-faire attitude about anything sexual, but I doubt I have much evidence to back that up. And Henry is English, not French. Were the Brits puritanical or would a little tryst here and there, if discreet, been ignored? No idea. I have a feeling even discretion would be difficult for these characters so the idea that what Henry wants most is generally unattainable at that time made it hard for me to invest too much in he and Percy’s relationship. Felicity I loved reading about, on the other hand. She is not your typical daughter of an earl and her interests and desires lay well outside the realm of the music, languages, and stitching she’ll learn about at finishing school. I look forward to Lee’s next installment in this series that will feature Felicity, coming out this fall.
Also? This book is pretty sexual, but then again, maybe kids are these days. I can’t imagine reading this as a teen, but they are older teenagers at least. It’s nice that there is some YA fiction out there featuring two main characters having a homosexual relationship, coming to grips with the lack of choice they have about their sexuality, and being happy together. I imagine young gay men have few characters with which to identify in the YA world so I am glad Lee wrote it as such.The fact that Henry is kind of selfish and unlikeable made it a little less compelling for me but it still was a good best-friends-maybe-lovers story. The central mystery/adventure was pretty dull for me and I admit to having skimmed it. Especially as we know that what Henry wants from this “grail” of sorts is actually not possible, so I was less enthralled by the actual treasure than the hunt itself.
Again, I am looking forward to Lee’s follow-up later this year – I expect I might dig Felicity’s story even more than her brother’s. If you’re heading to the beach this summer, take this one with you if pirates, dukes, Europe in the 18th century, or forbidden love are your thing.