“The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue”

I have just finished reading perhaps the greatest young adult novel ever written; at the very least, it is the greatest one my eyes and imagination have traversed. Even after completing the book, remembered waves crest in my mind’s eye, carrying a load heavier than the ships described in this novel. Flashes of banditry overtake my concentration. Three youth, so compellingly real I see them in the postures of strangers, take me inside myself to a place of contemplation. “The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue” has completely obliterated the past standard to which I held young adult novels thanks to the genius and courage of the author, Mackenzi Lee.

Before we continue, a brief introduction is in order. My name is Melissa Martin, and I am a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and I am this year’s associate editor for Sanskrit. I will be posting reviews of books and theater as well as lists ranking art in its many forms over the course of this semester. I invite you to join me in an exploration of art. Additionally, I challenge you to determine whether or not I am a harsh critic, as I myself do not know.

Back to the task at hand. Perhaps the reason I enjoyed Gentleman’s Guide so much is that it started off as a good book, not a great one. I picked up the novel at the insistence of a friend (shout out to Elissa Miller, copy-editor here at Sanskrit). Contrary as I am, I went into the novel seeking its flaws. Elissa’s raves were so positive they seemed exaggerated; I wanted to find contradictions in the book to tame her praise, and, as I started the novel, I did find issues. These “issues,” however, proved intentional. Let me explain.

I started with a potent disgust of the narrator/protagonist. Series could be written analyzing Mackenzi Lee’s main character, Henry “Monty” Montague. He is spoiled and unappealing, not in appearance (his handsome form is highlighted from the start), but rather in behavior. Every one of Monty’s early decisions, including stealing, surprise sex, and alcohol abuse, are endlessly irritating. This novel was so obviously set up to be a coming of age story that I cringed at the stereotypical instances of teen rebellion! Monty’s case was also harmed by the boy he idolized throughout the novel, Percy. Percy is Monty’s lifelong best friend. However, at some point prior to the start of this novel, Monty trades feelings of comradery for attraction. Monty’s idolization of Percy prevents him from listing any of his friend’s flaws prior to the halfway point of the novel. The result: Monty seems even more like a rake than his actions suggest, and Percy comes off as a flat and unengaging character. So, while the story was intriguing (spoiled rich boy struggles with feelings of attraction towards his best friend, and, oh, did I mention this story takes place in the 1700s?) I did not understand Elissa’s excitement.

I kept reading. As is oft to occur, the characters grew. They matured, yes, but almost more essential to the progression of the story were tactfully placed revelations explaining why characters behaved certain ways at the introduction of the tale. These elaborations transformed “characters” into people. The plot also metamorphosed from simple pictures of teen angst into a complicated tapestry of seemingly random yet somehow related events. I challenge you to write another story with bandits, pirates, miracle cures, and operas that suspends disbelief in a way that doesn’t make these points seem disparate.

The real take away from this novel, the reason it has completely captured my attention and praise, is that there is a purpose to the tale. This book makes you think. Lee is courageous in her writing, not only in that she tackles such odd plot points, but also in that she uses these points to discuss contemporary issues in a historical context. Sexuality. Acceptance. Identity. Morality. Gender Inequality. Race inequality. Financial Status. Maturity. Each concept is beautifully explored, analyzed, and left open ended for consideration. Mackenzi Lee shoved an entire three-course meal into her mouth at one time, and it was not more than she could chew.

If you recall, I mentioned earlier that there are three essential youths in this novel. I will discuss this unnamed character in my next blog post. There are so many factors to consider and discuss from “The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue” that I smile that I thought I could explore them all this week.

For now, I hope you take away the following: a desire to find a copy of “The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue” to indulge in as well as contemplations surrounding the power of growth (plot, character, etc.) in writing.

 

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About the Author

Melissa Martin is a sophomore at UNCC pursuing dual degrees in psychology and English. Her talents include eating multiple Cosmic Brownies a day without tiring of them and slipping the word “incredible” into every conversation. She is incredibly fond of her friends, family, and reading.
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