Bi Book Club: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

12/11/2018

Welcome back, lovely and loyal readers! I hope the holiday season finds everyone with just the right kind of cozy weather. I hope everyone is warm and comfy, wearing five layers of cable-knit sweaters, and nestled next to a roaring fire with a furry friend keeping the toesies warm. And, of course, I hope everybody has their favorite toasty beverage of choice – be that cider, hot chocolate, or maybe something stronger for the grown-ups.

But what is missing from this pretty picture? A great bi book, of course!

Well, I’m here to help. I looked back at my book reviews and realized that they may not be accessible to all ages, so I decided to ask around for a good YA book which is easily available at the library. I ended up asking my buddy, a former librarian, for some hot tips.

And that’s how I came across 2017’s The Gentleman’s Guide To Vice And Virtue by MacKenzi Lee. This book centers on the adventures of a future English lord in the 18th century, teenage Henry Montague. After getting kicked out of Eton, his stern father sends him (along with sister Felicity and his best friend Percy) to the Continent to tour for a year to get some wildness out of his system. But when a chance encounter at Versailles goes sideways, this sophisticated yet wily crew gets set off on an entirely different path.

I should warn readers, there will be SPOILERS from here on out. So if you haven’t read the book and plan to do so, please keep that in mind as we move along – or bookmark this article for later and see if you agree with my assertions. I should also note a trigger warning regarding assault, which our modern sensibilities would label a hate crime. I will try not to reveal too much, but some moments are necessary for me to make my assertions.

Gentleman’s Guide to Vice And Virtue makes no issue of asserting Henry’s bisexuality. The young lord-to-be is a decided rake nearly to the point of excess, which Lee makes clear from the very first chapter. These indulgences include Henry being bi, but not in a judgmental way. This is one of the things I loved most about the story; usually within a page – or even a sentence – of mentioning Henry’s same-sexploits or his love for Percy, Lee mentions his desires for women with equal measure. While most of the time we read of how Henry’s heart skips a beat for Percy, we also see he has romantic pasts with women, to varying results.

Not only that, but Henry’s charms with both men and women come in handy to forward the plot at crucial moments – sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better. And while the rest of the world who observes his bi leanings doesn’t really know what to make of them, Henry doesn’t have much inner conflict about it. The only thing he seems to regret is how his sexuality influences his relationships, or his future. Since we are following the young Mr. Montague through a Europe puttering along before the French Revolution, the word “bisexual” doesn’t even exist de juro, though he lives his bi-ness de facto. What we do see is how he figures out how to move in queer subgroups, or how an older version of bi-fi would have had to operate.

That said, Gentleman’s Guide can be a tough – if relatable – read. There are moments where we see Henry flash back on his father beating him senseless for “messing around” with other boys, and how that injured so much more than his body. But perhaps most stinging is a conversation with Felicity halfway through the novel, where she tries to understand his sexual attractions. While Henry’s sister has a forward-thinking scientific mind for the historical age, she still cannot get past a cognitive dissonance attractions to multiple genders. Henry doesn’t really have the language for it himself, only that he knows his heart and that he can’t help how he feels. For my part, I can relate to that conflict a whole helluva lot. I’ve had similar conversations with people who either willfully didn’t want to understand or truly just. didn’t. get it. It’s frustrating and disheartening at the same time to defend who you are on an essential level, and Lee captures those contrasting feelings with honesty and empathy.

Bottom line, the only time Henry regrets being bi is when his same-sex attractions land him in trouble in his society, so we watch as he utilizes his charms very carefully throughout the plot. He only feels shame when there are repercussions on his life or body for what his heart can’t help but do – and I can totally understand how he feels. I bet bi+ readers can, too. And for those who aren’t bi, the writing is accessible enough they should get a good insight to the bi experience.

But while there is a good amount of soul searching regarding Henry’s queerness, it is not entirely the focal point of the book, which is at its heart an adventure novel. The themes and ideas throughout Gentleman’s Guide are fun and fascinating, and despite its near-500 page length moves along at a nice clip. Henry and his companions are well-rounded and nicely developed as characters – something we don’t see often for people of color and women in swashbuckling novels set in the 1700s.

The only thing that frustrated me as a reader was some description choices. Lee freely uses a college-level vocabulary appropriate for her historical characters, and I didn’t mind looking up the occasional word. What did bother me was an insistence on description breaking up the dialogue at every turn. I really don’t need to read how Felicity licks some cream from a pastry off her thumb every time she eats. This wasn’t at George R.R. Martin-levels of hedonistic over-description, but I think Lee could have cut a third of these descriptions and taken 50 pages off her manuscript without the story suffering much loss.

All in all, though, this is a glittering and diverting read, light in fare but satisfying in its bi representation. I would heartily recommend it to anyone middle school-aged and above. In fact, I lent the book to my niece during Thanksgiving! While she said “eh” when I asked how it was, she had still burned through half the book in a day. I’d say that’s a pretty solid teen endorsement.

Jennie Roberson
Jennie Roberson is a comedic actress and screenwriter currently living in Los Angeles. She just finished her first novel (a bi coming-of-age tale, naturally) and hopes to share it with the world soon. When she's not busy binging on Star Trek or dreaming of her future cat army, you can find her occasional thoughts between mountains of re-tweets at her Twitter handle, @JennieRoberson.