Desert Isle Keeper
The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue
I enjoyed every bit of this book and I need/want to convince you to read it too! Delightful, charming, funny, addictive and entertaining, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is chock full of both vice and virtue. The Grand Tour of Europe planned by our protagonist quickly goes awry and evolves instead into a dangerous Grand Adventure complete with highwayman, fighting pirates, magical alchemy, and more. But that’s all simply window dressing to what’s at the heart of this novel – love, friendship and hope. In this coming of age story, our lovelorn hero matures and evolves as he s-l-o-w-l-y learns how to become the kind of man he aspires to be. He’s a supremely polarizing character, and perhaps in less capable hands it would be a challenge to redeem our naughty hero, but Ms. Lee manages it. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is a wonderful, unforgettable – and redemptive – road trip I never wanted to end.
Henry “Monty” Montague is a gentleman born, but a rogue at heart, and his disregard for his reputation and passionate indulgence in what he considers the finer things of life – gambling, men (and women), drink – have yet to be squelched by attendance at the finest boarding schools or by his overbearing and abusive father. Handsome, funny and vain, Monty lives life to its fullest and damn the consequences. Dismissed from Eton after getting caught with another boy, living at home at the mercy of his father (and his fists), his future – managing the family estate – looms large. But Monty has one last hurrah to look forward to: A Grand Tour of Europe with his best friend and the (secret) love of his life, Percy Newton. His younger sister Felicity, a bluestocking in training, will accompanying them as far as Marseilles, where she’s enrolled in finishing school, and when the year is over, the friends will be forced apart – Monty to return to England and Percy to Holland and law school. Until then, Monty has grand plans for their travels.
Unfortunately, Monty’s father has his own opinions about the trip and shortly before their departure, he pulls Monty aside and informs him that they will be accompanied by a guardian who will control their finances and itinerary. Mr. Lockwood will also be there to ensure Monty behaves appropriately and will report any infractions to his father. If Monty misbehaves, the trip is over, Monty will be cast off from his family, his money and his position – and he’ll lose this last year with Percy. Frustrated and disappointed, but still hopeful the trip will be great, the group sets off.
At first, the trip proceeds much as Monty expects. Mr. Lockwood keeps them on a tight leash but Monty is determined to seize every opportunity to flirt and spend time with Percy whom he adores. Days are filled with visits to museums, churches and other educational pursuits – or more precisely, the opposite of anything that interests Monty. On a rare occasion, Mr. Norcross does permit them to go out on their own, and he and Percy steal away to a nightclub. The evening unfolds much as Monty hoped their trip would – with drinking, gambling, flirting… and a passionate kiss. But when Percy presses Monty about his feelings, he panics and the evening ends on a sour note. Monty is distraught and heartbroken, and unable to fix whatever mistake he’s made. So, true to form, he promptly makes it worse.
Shortly after the disastrous nightclub visit, they travel to Versailles where they’ve been invited to a summer ball. Monty has been in a foul mood for days, and when he finally breaks free of his chaperones, promptly gets drunk and sets out to seduce a beautiful and flirtatious guest. They depart the ballroom for the privacy of her quarters, but just as things are heating up, they’re interrupted in flagrante by a couple of people Monty offended earlier in the day. He flees – naked – and finds himself amid gaping, scandalised guests, a dismayed Percy, disgusted Felicity and an outraged guardian. They quickly depart but it’s clear that Monty’s debauched exit signals the end of his Grand Tour. But before Lockwood can contact his father, another spectacularly bad decision Monty made at Versailles comes to light. The repercussions of that reckless action has immediate and disastrous consequences and mayhem, mishaps and adventure ensue as Monty learns – the hard way – the true meaning of love and friendship.
Monty is a polarizing figure with many, many faults, not the least of which is his apparent unwillingness to be better until life gives him no other option. He’s a reliable, if exasperating narrator, and I liked him in spite of his flaws. Vain, selfish and frequently oblivious to how his bad behavior affects the people he loves he’s also charming, loyal and wickedly funny. He hides the scars of his father’s abuse well, but as the adventure stretches, his sunny facade begins to crack. His efforts at emotional intimacy with Percy are alternately lovely, awkward and awful, but his love for his friend – oh dear reader – it’s the real deal. His bizarrely funny and self-deprecating narration is marvelously done by Ms. Lee and Monty makes for a fascinating rogue you hate to love. You can’t help yourself.
The secondary characters are equally compelling. Lovely, sweet, gentle Percy is the biracial son of a West Indies landowner, and it’s clear to all (except Monty) that his life, though privileged, isn’t easy. Racism is rampant, and Percy endures public disdain and condescension with a humbling resignation. The author superbly and subtly illustrates Percy’s plight – privileged but still an outsider, ridiculed for the color of his skin. He isn’t in a position to call out his tormentors and he quietly suffers whenever Monty, his fiercely passionate champion, challenges any perceived slight and insists Percy do the same. But there’s more to Percy than meets the eye, and a secret he’s kept nearly derails their friendship as it brings Felicity into the spotlight. Felicity, with her sharp tongue, brilliant mind and indomitable spirit, nearly steals the show. She has no desire to go to finishing school, and without her they likely wouldn’t have survived the wild adventure that unfolds after Monty’s Versailles debacle. She’s a wonderfully wise and tough addition to this ensemble and provides a much needed level head and mature confidence – in contrast to her challenging older brother. She’s also a classic little sister and the alternately bickering enemies/loving siblings relationship between brother and sister is particularly well done. Ms. Lee writes secondary characters par excellence.
I know you want to know what happens following the group’s abrupt departure from Versailles, but trust me when I tell you, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is worth discovering on your own. Monty is a marvelously enjoyable narrator and you’ll either love him or hate him by the time you reach its surprising conclusion. I wish Ms. Lee had spent a bit more time on the epilogue – if only so we could visit with these friends a little longer – but as it is, it’s sweetly satisfying. Unpredictable, intriguing, funny – and romantic – it’s easily one of my favorite novels of the year.