Laughs and lessons in ‘The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue’
“The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue” by Mackenzi Lee begins with a bang as the protagonist proclaims, “On the morning we are to leave for our Grand Tour of the Continent, I wake in bed beside Percy. For a disorienting moment, it’s unclear whether we’ve ‘slept together’ or simply slept together.” What follows is a sprawling adventure story spanning all of Europe and touching on many social issues still relevant today—despite the 18th century setting. It’s the rare kind of book that will make you laugh as much as it makes your heart ache.
The novel follows Henry “Monty” Montague, his best friend Percy and his sister Felicity as they embark on a tour of the continent, sometime in the 1700s. It’s meant to be a last hurrah before Henry settles down to take his father’s place in the household, Percy goes to law school and Felicity heads off to finishing school. But things quickly go awry after Percy has an embarrassing encounter at Versailles that turns the trio’s continental tour into a race across Europe with life-or-death implications.
There’s never a dull moment as the decisions and revelations of Monty and his companions frequently turn the plot on a dime. It’s impossible to predict the ending of the story from the perspective of the first chapter—and as we learn with the characters about themselves and the world they live in, everything changes (not once, or even twice, but over and over again). What purports to be a leisurely coming-of-age tale quickly transforms into a breakneck chase with no easily resolvable moral conclusion. Given the complicated web in which the characters find themselves tangled, you’ll likely find yourself wondering what kind of ending you even want for them.
Despite the complexity of the plot, the novel is about so much more than where the characters go and what they do. It’s about who they are and how that impacts their lives and their relationships with one another and everyone around them. Just like everyone in the world outside of fiction, Monty, Percy and Felicity all face their own, individual struggles each day. Monty is bisexual in a world where his sexuality is punishable by death; Percy is half-black in a world that’s built around discriminating against him; and Felicity is a woman who wants to study science in a world run by men.
The best part about this book is that it works hard to reveal the invisible injustices experienced by all the characters, while never once defaulting to comparison or competition between oppressions. Instead, “The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue” is an exercise in empathy and an acknowledgement of intersectionality. Given that we haven’t left all these issues in the 18th century, the book has a powerful message that resonates in society today. The characters aren’t perfect, but they teach, listen and ultimately learn from each other, just like we all must do if we want any hope of saying goodbye to these injustices in the 21st century.