"Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he was never one to be tamed. The finest boarding schools in England and the constant disapproval of his father haven’t been able to curb any of his roguish passions—not for gambling halls, late nights spent with a bottle of spirits, or waking up in the arms of women or men.
But as Monty embarks on his Grand Tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice is in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.
Still it isn’t in Monty’s nature to give up. Even with his younger sister, Felicity, in tow, he vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt that spans across Europe, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores." - From Goodreads
If I had to describe the Gentleman's Guide in one word, it would be 'fun.' That's the feeling the novel left me with, despite its hefty 500 pages, it was a fun, enjoyable read, especially considering that it is a historical fiction novel about a teen-aged bisexual English Lord going on his 'Grand Tour' in 18th century Europe, told in first-person narrative. The levels of me not being able to relate just stack up, but Mackenzie Lee manages to somehow make Monty, Percy (his biracial best friend who he is in love with) and Felicity (his bookish sister) highly relate-able, while throwing in enough adventure, action, and humour to keep the pages turning.
Gentleman's Guide is more than historical(ish) fiction, more than romance, more than an adventure story, though it is all those things at once. I say historical(ish), because though it contains some elements of actual 18th century history (specifically when it comes to concepts like that of the Grand Tour, the Bourbon family in Paris and their relationship to the French throne, etc.), it has taken liberties with timings and, obviously, facts.
The novel is funny and sad and emotional and real. It deals with a variety of issues from sexuality and gender to social status and race, issues that were very much prevalent during that time period (especially in Europe), and are still important today. But, those issues don't overshadow the story itself, don't bog it down.
Lee does a good job of balancing the reality that those three characters would be facing at the time, while throwing in pirates and highway men and alchemy, drunken shenanigans and high society. Monty, our handsome devlish-rake of a protagonist, isn’t some knight in shining armour, he’s a privileged teenage boy who is reckless, selfish, confused and freezes in times of crises but grows and develops as the story does. He is, at the core of it all, a boy who is used to using charm and his good looks to get out of trouble (which sometimes works), who hides behind drinking and sleeping around and being a general ass to ignore the pain of abuse and fear of a future he can not control. He doesn’t seem to understand what chances his status, his skin colour, and his gender provide him, ignorant of the difficulties women and people of colour face in the society he and his peers are raised in. At times, he is insufferable, but never irredeemable, for even when he is thick, he makes an effort.
I found myself rolling my eyes at his complete lack of composure and etiquette, his ability to put his foot in his mouth at the most inopportune moments, while simultaneously wanting to protect him from the world outside, specifically his father. I could say more on this topic, but all I'll say is that I think that Lee portrays how deeply Monty's relationship with his father affects everything about him, personality to behaviour, very well.
Felicity and Percy are just as important to the plot as Monty is, and they're even more important for their role in helping Monty grow, for sticking by him (saving his ass on an occasion or two) and opening his eyes to what the world is like, and what it could be like. If anything more could have been done, it would have been to develop the antagonists willing-to-murder-children reasoning a little further, but otherwise plot and character development were on point.
The novel also contains the gorgeous backdrops of various European cities that the trio venture across, starting in Paris with an illicit encounter and unfortunate faux-pas in the French Court, to running from highway men through Spain, meeting pirates in the Mediterranean, uncovering Bourbon plots in Italy, and more.
I highly enjoyed this novel, and look forward to reading more, if not about Monty specifically, than about Felicity. She is intelligent, quick thinking, and sassy, which makes for my kind of protagonist. We need more fun historical fiction books in this same style, like My Lady Jane (which was abso-bloody-lutely fantastic), that take tropes and spin them around in the most absurd way.
Pick this one up if you like diverse, historical-ish reads with a good amount of adventure and running mixed in.
(Some) Memorable Quotes:
“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.”
“Love may be a grand thing, but goddamn if it doesn't take up more than its fair share of space inside a man.”
“It is remarkable how much courage it takes to kiss someone, even when you are almost certain that person would very much like to be kissed by you. Doubt will knock you from the sky every time.”
“...there is a tradition known as kintsukuroi. It is the practice of mending broken ceramic pottery using lacquer dusted with gold and silver and other precious metals. It is meant to symbolize that things can be more beautiful for having been broken."
"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."
"We feel like changeling versions of ourselves lying here, brittle likenesses doing a mimic of the way they have seen us behave before."
"My heart makes a reckless vault, flinging itself against the base of my throat so that it's suddenly hard to breathe around it."
“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.”
If anyone has read The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue, let us know what you think in the comments below! Comments also open to further book/movie/show recommendations, anything you’d like to see reviewed, or general feedback. We’d love to hear what you have to say!