Yay! I’ve been looking forward to this book for a while now! This is for Challenge #15 “Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+.”
This was one of many books I discovered through Book Riot’s list of suggestions for books for this challenge, a list I never seem able to find again. (I’ve already read two of the others, and have a couple more sitting here waiting to be read, and more than that on my unpurchased TBR list.) The book wasn’t even out yet when they put it on the list, and they summed it up very briefly as two young men off on their Grand Tour of Europe, and I think they put in some kind of expression of the fact that they were each others’ love interests. Very bare bones suggestion of what the book was about, but it was more than enough to pique my interest, especially since the model on the cover makes me think of Brian Slade. (Yes, yes, don’t judge a book by its cover, I know.)
So, a more detailed hint at what the plot is would go something like this:
Young Henry Montague — Monty to his friends — has recently been expelled from Eton, and is now being given one last chance to redeem himself. He’s off on his Grand Tour, and upon his return, will be forced to take over his father’s estate and live a respectable life. Of course, he’s determined to make the most of his year-long tour of Europe, especially because he’ll be travelling in the company of his best friend, Percy Newton, with whom Monty is intensely in love, though he’s never had the nerve to say so. (Monty’s sister, Felicity, is to travel with them as far as Marseilles on her way to finishing school, but Monty isn’t particularly interested in that.) The plans for their Tour have been laid out with care, ending in Holland, where Percy is to attend law school. Of course, the more carefully laid plans are, the less likelihood that they’ll turn out the way they’re supposed to…
So, a few words on our three main characters.
Yes, three. Felicity is actually a major player, unexpectedly, and quite surprisingly awesome. Though, admittedly, perhaps a bit anachronistic in places; of all the major characters, she feels most like a modern person in an 18th century setting. (Though they all have their anachronistic aspects, naturally; no matter how much research an author does, a modern person still cannot experience the 18th century and understand how people thought and behaved in every way at that time.) To give you a few hints as to what Felicity is like, she groans excessively at the idea of being sent to finishing school, because she wants an education. And at one point, when her brother is shuddering at the thought of massive amounts of blood and is surprised that she isn’t doing likewise, Felicity tells him “Ladies haven’t the luxury of being squeamish about blood.” Felicity is kind of the break-away character of the book; the character you expected to barely even be there who you end up rooting for all the way.
As to Monty, well, he’s a voraciously bisexual rake. Seriously, despite how much he’s in love, he will pursue anyone, provided they’re attractive. When the novel starts, he basically has no positive character traits apart from being good-looking (according to his own perception, at any rate) and his devoted attachment to Percy. At the beginning of the book, there’s a map showing their itinerary, on which Monty has written “Reasons I am looking forward to our Tour” followed by “No Father” with a check mark next to it, “Gambling” with another check, “Parties” with yet another check, and “A year with Percy” with a little heart next to it. He’s an eighteen year old alcoholic with utter disregard for everything that isn’t pleasurable. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is our narrator! (In the present tense, too, which felt rather awkward for the first sixty or so pages, unlike in Girl Mans Up, where it took me that long or longer even to consciously notice the present tense.)
Of course, it would be a pretty terrible novel if he ended up in the same place he started out, so there’s no need to worry unduly about that. But it does take him longer to get moving on his inner journey than one might necessarily like. And I’ll warn you right now that there are times when you want to scream at him to stop being such a moron and just say how he really feels. It’s all very genuine, though, if sometimes a bit over-the-top. (Well, he’s the son of a wealthy earl. He’s not used to doing anything on a small scale.)
Now, as to Percy…the first thing to be said is that it’s easy to see why Monty’s so smitten with him. He’s sweet, clever, and puts up with Monty despite all his smeg. He loves to play the violin that he inherited from his father, and of course takes it along on their Tour. Since we’re in Monty’s head the whole time, we don’t get a full description of Percy right away, since he knows intimately what Percy looks like. We don’t get an idea what Percy looks like until we meet his aunt, and after a description of some of the features they share (nose and bone structure) and ones they don’t (hair), then we’re told that “Percy’s lived with his aunt and uncle all his life, ever since his father returned from the family estate in Barbados with a jungle fever, his French violin, and an infant son with skin the color of sandalwood, then expired.”
Monty’s known Percy pretty much his entire life, so Percy’s biracial background means very little to him — Percy is Percy — but as they travel among strangers in the rest of Europe, Monty begins to see how thickly the deck is sometimes stacked against Percy, especially since this is early enough that slavery has not been abolished in many parts of Europe yet. (True to the era, it opens with the only date given being “17–“, so when they were headed to Versailles, I found myself fervently begging “please don’t let it be 1789!” Thhe Rococo fashions on display at Versailles had me worried until they started talking about the “boy king,” and that’s when I realized it absolutely wasn’t 1789. It turns out it was more like 1729.) Some of the scenes of various people reacting to Percy’s skin color end up being some of the most affecting moments of the book, because Monty is seeing the sort of things Percy has always been going through (he’s not allowed to eat with his aunt and uncle when certain company come over, for example) that Monty’s never been aware of, and as stunned as he is at the way some people act towards Percy, he’s also hurt that Percy’s never shared any of this with him before.
Of course, their relationship is at the center of the novel, and (as you might expect) it certainly hits some speed bumps along the way. And I want to say soooo much more than that about their relationship, but I feel like that would be totally spoiling things. And I’m trying to avoid spoilers as much as possible, because this is a wonderful book (even if the narrator sometimes makes you want to reach into the book and slap him) and anyone who feels intrigued by it should definitely read it.
Another nice thing is that, like with The Girl from Everywhere, the author includes some basic information in the back on the various historical practices, beliefs and people that were worked into the fabric of the book.
So, a bit of an update on where I am in the 2017 Read Harder Challenge: I’ve decided that Girl Mans Up counted for Challenge #2, and that The Girl from Everywhere counted for Challenge #12, and I am now three books shy of completing the challenge. And all three books have been chosen and bought, so I just have to read them…
…and then I can move on to last year’s Challenge. (It would be awesome if I could complete all three this year, but that’s clearly not going to happen if it took me more than half the year to finish the first one. But maybe I can still finish 2016’s Challenge this year, and then next year I can do both 2018’s and 2015’s.