THE GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE is one of those young adult books with a cultish following that is hyped up to the point where the book itself nearly becomes annoying because of all the fan baggage attached to it. Maybe it's the contrarian inside me, but when I'm surrounded by people who are all screaming "LIKE THIS! LIKE THIS!" I wanna be like, "NO! I HATE IT AND I HATE YOU. GOODBYE." It's the same way with books. The more people try to force me to like something, the more I drag my heels and am determined to find my own way.
Unlike 90% of other leading hyped-up YA titles, THE GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE has a couple things going for it that actually pleasantly surprised me. There's a trend of precious, twee fiction that's written like a series of Tumblr posts in which diversity is used like a checklist and the writing is as painfully and tackily ornate as a Bel-Air McMansion. THE GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE, on the other hand, has a bisexual hero who is seen with both men and women. He's portrayed as being a bit of a slut, which points from Gryffindor, because stereotypes, much? But on the other hand, he's also a teenage boy wallowing in privilege and wildly swinging a hand basket of emotional hang-ups and issues, so this might actually be semi-reasonable.
Henry, said bisexual hero, is in love with his friend Percy. Percy is half-black and lives with a noble family, although they treat him like a second-class citizen. Lately, though, he isn't even accorded that much "privilege" because he's started to develop seizures, and his family has decided that they are "done" and are going to consign him to an asylum. It takes Henry a while to realize that his friend has his own set of problems, because Henry is so focused on his own - inheriting his father's business, the abuse handed out to him by his father, his forbidden attraction to boys. Going on Tour in Europe is going to be his last hurrah - or would have been, had his father not cottoned on to his attraction for the opposite sex and foisted a hand-wringing guardian upon him and a threat that he'll be disinherited if any whiff of shamed honor or homosexuality makes its way back to his priggish ears.
The way racism is addressed in this book was done pretty well, I thought, and wasn't too heavy-handed. Henry has to tackle his own privilege and confront the way that he really looks at his friend. One of the best moments was when he realizes that equality means not feeling obligated to fight all your friends' battles for them because you think them incapable of doing it themselves, and the fact that society sweeps their agency away from them is one of the intrinsic problems with discrimination. There was definitely a bit of "virtue signalling" with Henry "Look how tolerant I am" Montague, and so when he stopped looking down on Percy or viewing him selfishly, the attraction worked.
The story itself was a bit odd. I liked the beginning a lot more than the middle or the end. It's fun to read about rakes, and this was a good deal more salacious than I was expecting for a YA novel. Henry's drunken, slutty shenanigans were funny. I liked his interactions with Percy as well. At first his sister, Felicity, annoyed me a lot. I tolerated her by the end of the book but she won't be winning any "favorite character" contests for me. Modern day feminist characters don't really work in historical fiction for a myriad of reasons. But everything was mostly fine until the alchemy plot rolled in and there was all that bunk about panaceas and immortality. Suddenly this book went from being Oscar Wilde for kids to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Magical Surgery. I could not believe the ending of this ridiculous book. Pirates, sinking islands, living forever - did I MISS something?
Ultimately, I decided to deduct a star for that mess of a resolution. It really felt like the author had three ideas for a story and decided to cram them all together while crossing her fingers that it'd work. It didn't. I had fun reading THE GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE, but sticking in all that crazy scientist stuff ended up making the book seem stupid and OTT, turning what could have been one of my top reads of the year into yet another YA novel that preemptively jumped the shark.
2.5 to 3 out of 5 stars