After seeing this over and over being the darling of the book blogosphere and reading the rave reviews of it I figured I should check it out. I read a lot of LGBT literature, a lot of young adult literature, and quite a bit of adventure literature so I thought why not. And although I wasn’t completely disappointed, I was genuinely underwhelmed and for once it wasn’t the mood I was in. I’ll start with the not-so-great and finish with what I enjoyed.
I’m a finicky reader at best and have curated a pretty good system of choosing the books I read, including taking into account books that fellow bloggers who have similar tastes to me read, but this one just didn’t click for me quite like others have. I kept to my usual style of not reading anything about the author or the book after I decided I want to read it. [Generally I get excited about a book/author and purchase/reserve something by them and then I let it sit for a while so that I can clear my palate.]
This works great in most instances, but this time it actually worked against the book. As I was reading I truly felt this was a debut novel, not in that it was bad or immature, but in that it felt overworked and could’ve done with a bit more editorial direction. There were quite a few passages that were laborious to read and I often found myself getting distracted by anything and everything by some of the overly descriptive passages to which many first time authors fall prey. Maybe it was just me, but take these two for example:
“Even Paris itself is a cruel mistress—it’s a shithole of a place, with more people crammed into it than seems possible and truly incredible traffic. Twice as many carriages and handcarts and sedans crowd the streets as in London, and there are no footpaths to speak of. The buildings are taller than in London as well, the lanes weaving them together narrow, their stones weathered and slick. Sewage falls from the windows as chamber pots are tossed, and the gutters fester with it, great mastiff dogs roaming feral through them.” (42)
“It is, to be fair, a spectacular first sighting—that white-and-russet skyline surrounded by a lagoon of bright teal water. Flocks of ships and striped mooring posts jut from the waves like resting cormorants, black gondolas flitting between them. Against the amber burn of the sunset, domes and bell towers peak, the columned facade of the Doge’s Palace and the capped point of Saint Mark’s Basilica along the Grand Canal flanked by palaces with checkered fronts, their balconies hanging over the canal. The glassy water clasps the light and reflects it back, like there’s a second city beneath the sea.” (415)
Now that I’ve put them together, I realized they’re both descriptions of places. Maybe I’m being too hard as this is a young adult novel, but the number of adjectives just got to me. It felt like Lee took it so far beyond show don’t tell that she wanted to show every detail, which isn’t a bad thing but it doesn’t fit in an adventure novel that she set out to write. However, maybe she received feedback from editors that if this is young adult most people wouldn’t have traveled to these locations, who knows. It was just too much for my tastes.
I think that comes down to what the biggest problem is with the novel, she wanted to write a romance novel AND an adventure novel AND a queer friendly novel all within a young adult framework and it was two too many. As I said above I’ve read plenty of each of those and there are great ones of any number of those combinations, but this one just fell short because she tried to do too much.
Now on to what I really enjoyed about the novel.
Where Lee did a better job in the book balancing all of these genres was the youth and humor. Her characters were sufficiently over-dramatic as teenagers,
“The great tragic love story of Percy and me is neither great nor truly a love story, and is only tragic 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 the importance has been magnified into a sudden and intense desire to put his tongue in the other’s mouth.” (28)
And had enough awkward moments to make me enjoy reading their misadventures. Henry was humorously well written and his sexual appetite, like it seems most teenagers, was insatiable whether it was men or women and the high jinks that ensued had me either giggling or blushing.
The other place Lee excelled was in her gender/sexuality politics. She made incredibly poignant observations that I think are good for young adults to experience.
“‘Ladies haven’t the luxury of being squeamish about blood,’ she replies, and Percy and I go fantastically red in unison.” (264)
“Perhaps fashion is just a reinforcement of a lady’s chastity, in hopes that the interested party may lose interest and abandon any deflowering attempts simply for all the clothing in the way.” (90)
“If he could beat this out of me, I would have let him long ago.” (123)
Those first two have actually made me somewhat excited about the follow-up novel to this one, The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy. Felicity, the primary female character is full of spitfire and spunk and I can’t wait to see where Lee takes her.
Of the three lines the one that gave me trouble was the final. I get why she included it, but it was a bit worrisome in that self-hatred and internalized homophobia is still rife within the LGBT community. This was still pretty early on in the book and I felt she did a good job of distancing herself from this in the next 300 or so pages (see below), but it still stood out as an ouch moment for me.
Recommendation: It’s worth a read. I think she struggled with too many check boxes: young adult, action and adventure, romance, queer friendly, etc., but it was ultimately an enjoyable read. I won’t go out of my way to read the next novel in the series, but if I come across it I’ll pick it up.
Opening Line: “On the morning we are to leave for our Grand Tour of the Continent, I wake in bed beside Percy.”
Closing Line: “And now Percy has his arms around me and Santorini and the sea are spread like a feast before us and there is sky all the way to the horizon. And what a sky it is. – Henry Montague” (Whited out to avoid spoilers, highlight to read.)
Additional Quotes from The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue
“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.” (30)
“When you are a lad who enjoys getting other lads in bed, you have to develop a rather fastidious sense for who plays the same instrument or there’s a chance you’ll find yourself at the business end of a hangman’s knot. And if this fellow and I had met at a bar, I would have already bought him a drink and put his fingers in my mouth. It’s a great risk—I’m not so much jumping to a conclusion as vaulting haphazardly into it—but, somehow, I know.” (194)
“God bless the book people for their boundless knowledge absorbed from having words instead of friends.” (257)
“Love may be a grand thing, but goddamn if it doesn’t take up more than it’s fair share of space inside a man.” (274)
“It is remarkable how much courage it takes to kiss someone, even when you’re almost certain that person would very much like to be kissed by you. Doubt will knock you from the sky every time.” (426)
“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.” (498)
“Which begs the question—would a long-term romantic relationship between two upper-class English men during the eighteenth century have been a real possibility? I don’t know. They likely would not have been able to be open about it. But the optimist in me likes to believe that the twenty first century is not the first time in history that queer people have been able to live full romantic and sexual lives with the people they love.” (512, Author’s Note)