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.
This novel reminded me of reading Voltaire’s Candide in an English translation in college. What I remember most about that is that it was one adventure after another, a sort of Energizer Bunny of a story that just… kept… going. I recently did a little digging to figure out if what I remembered was accurate, and I ran across the term “picaresque novel”, for which the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms provides this explanation:
In the strict sense, a novel with a picaroon (Spanish, picaró: a rogue or scoundrel) as its hero or heroine, usually recounting his or her escapades in a first-person narrative marked by its episodic structure and realistic low-life descriptions. The picaroon is often a quick-witted servant who takes up with a succession of employers. […] In the looser sense now more frequently used, the term is applied to narratives that do not have a picaroon as their central character, but are loosely structured as a sequence of episodes united only by the presence of the central character, who is often involved in a long journey[…].
Okay, so The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue doesn’t strictly meet the definition, but it’s pretty close. It’s set in an unspecified year sometime in the eighteenth century. The first-person narrator, Henry “Monty” Montague, is the eighteen-year-old Viscount Disley, a lad pretty committed to a daily routine of drinking, gambling, and romping with assorted girls and boys. His father, the earl, has been vocal (and physical) in his disapproval of Monty’s habits, especially the “mucking about with boys” that was a major factor in Monty’s expulsion from Eton.
Monty is looking forward to one last hurrah of a Grand European Tour with his best friend (and the boy he’s been in love with for years), Percy, before returning to England, where his father expects him to settle down and learn how to handle estate he is expected to inherit. Monty is disappointed to discover that, in addition to bringing his fifteen-year-old sister, Felicity, along for a portion of the tour, he and Percy have been assigned a “bear-leader” who pledges to keep them on the straight and narrow.
That doesn’t last past Paris; events at a party at Versailles quickly lead to Monty, Percy, and Felicity – separated from their supposed guardian – finding themselves in a flight from city to city, trying to keep one step ahead of some dangerous pursuers. Secrets of all sorts are revealed as one challenge follows another, and Monty learns quite a lot more than he bargained for.
Monty, Percy, and Felicity are all realistically complicated characters. Monty is a rogue who has trouble seeing past his own privilege, but his biracial best friend and science-minded younger sister can (eventually) get through to him. The difficulties Percy and Felicity face are realistic edges in a story that verges on the fantastical.
This book is, most of all, fun. Monty’s attraction to boys as well as girls isn’t an issue for him (other than the fact that it drives his father’s vicious treatment of him); his problem is that he isn’t sure how to tell the boy he likes that he, well, likes him. Having a crush on your best friend that you’re afraid to confess because you can’t bear the thought of losing that friend? That’s a problem teenagers across time, space, gender, and orientation can all understand. This is a picaresque (hey, there’s that word!) adventure novel and a romance, so you know that despite the obstacles (and more obstacles… and more obstacles) they face, our heroes will get to their happy ending.
And Felicity is getting a book of her own, slated for October 2018. I am so looking forward to The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy. I can hardly wait.
Source: Checked out from my public library.
Reading Challenges: Um, none. ¯_(ツ)_/¯