book review

Halloween Reading: The Gentleman by Forrest Leo


“I’m in love and I’ve the best private library in Britain. I have never known books or love ever to fail, so I don’t see why they’d do so now.”

my summary: Through a slipshod poet’s narcissistic eyes, we are brought into the world of Victorian London, where Lionel Savage, his indefatigable butler, fiery sister, and long-lost-but-now-returned adventurer brother-in-law must go on a journey to trace Lionel’s wife, whom he unintentionally sold to the devil.

The Gentleman was the perfect book to help me dip into the Halloween spirit (It’s not even October yet, you say? Shhh.). It had a few spooky moments, but mostly had me literally laughing out loud, and at times I was a little envious of author Forrest Leo, for this is precisely the kind of silliness that I would most like to capture in my own writing.

Usually with first person POV novels, the reader agrees to suspend disbelief and not ask why, exactly, the narrator is telling their story. But Forrest Leo takes a more interesting approach: This is the memoir of one Lionel Savage, romantic, dramatic, self-centered, and not a particularly good poet – as edited and footnoted by Hubert Lancaster, the cousin-in-law who tells us in the opening Editor’s Note that he has “been charged with editing these pages and seeing them through to publication, but I do not like the task. I wish it on record that I think it better they had been burned.”

Such begins the tale.

Lionel is a perfectly ridiculous character, and his faults are nitpicked in the footnotes by his cousin-in-law, whose own faults become equally apparent over time. He’s there to tell us when Lionel is exaggerating his virtues, which is every couple of pages, and to insert his own opinions on every character in the story, giving a helpful, although equally-biased, second opinion. It was a genius way to organize a novel, and I wonder why we don’t have more books like this. (It does seem Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell-inspired, but funnier.)

This book includes nearly everything I love, from architecturally-bizarre libraries, masses of old books, quaint bookstores open at odd hours of the night, and hot air balloons.

Here’s one of my favorite bits, in which Lionel’s clever butler reads a scrap of poetry found on Lionel’s desk:

He reads it aloud: “‘I said to her now please disrobe yourself / And she complied and said here’s to your – ’” He pauses painfully, then finishes, “‘ – health.’”

“IT’S WORDS ON THE PAGE!” I yell like a cornered animal. “That’s the first step! When there are words on the page then one can revise them until they are good words!”

The Gentleman is simultaneously silly and heartfelt, and I found myself giggling in front of strangers as I read it during my morning train commute. I really, really loved this book, and I think it would make a great gift for All Hallows Read. Next up for Halloween: Some Shirley Jackson!




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