book review: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

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THE GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE by Mackenzi Lee
★★★☆☆
Katherine Tegen Books, 2017

This was occasionally entertaining but consistently underwhelming. I’m sure it was mostly a fault in my own expectations, but I’d been in the mood for something unapologetically fun and silly, so I was disappointed by how deceptively seriously The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue ended up taking itself. I’m conflicted about this book.

It tells the story of Monty, rich but rebellious heir to his father’s estate. Monty embarks on a Grand Tour of Europe with his best friend Percy (who he happens to be in love with), and his sister Felicity. Again, what I was expecting was an unabashedly ridiculous romp through early-Modern continental Europe, but unfortunately I found the plot anything but thrilling. It bounced from city to city in a rather perfunctory way (I never was able to visualize the atmosphere of the setting in a way I would have liked), and it dealt with an array of rather serious topics: homophobia, racism, abuse. In and of itself this isn’t a bad thing at all, but I thought the execution here was just a bit… basic? The extent of Mackenzi Lee’s exploration of these issues kind of amounted to ‘Percy is not afforded as many opportunities as Monty because of the color of his skin.’ Okay…? Yes? Obviously? That’s all? This ultimately struck me as a book that was on the rather young end of the YA spectrum. That’s not to say that you can’t enjoy it if you’re older, of course, but this is the kind of occasionally preachy YA book that I ordinarily like to shy away from.

Though I loved each of these characters individually and was ultimately rooting for their relationship, I also wasn’t a fan of how Mackenzi Lee chose to develop it. Here’s the thing: when your story centers around the possibility of a relationship between two characters, you can’t show your hand too early. You can’t tell us essentially from the very beginning that Monty and Percy are into each other, and then rely on the tired trope of miscommunication to keep them apart for the duration of the story. There’s just… no tension, just a rather prolonged story while you’re awaiting the inevitable conclusion.

But as I said, I did love these characters, Monty in particular. He’s exactly the kind of well-rounded anti-hero I love. Though you see nothing but his flaws at first, his guile and loyalty easily won me over. He’s the sort of character who acts in a loud and brash way to cover up his own fears and insecurities, and I thought Mackenzi Lee did a very good job of developing his character in a believable way throughout the book. He’s occasionally infuriating, but ultimately hard not to love. I was pleasantly surprised by Felicity as well, who for some reason I thought was going to be an awkward accessory to the main narrative – but she ended up having a fantastic role.

I know this review has been mostly negative, but I did really enjoy reading this. It was quick and occasionally fun – the truly lighthearted moments were the ones I thought shone the most – but this basically boils down to the fact that I was not the right reader for this book. And that’s perfectly fine – I’m still glad to have read it.