Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Gentleman by Forrest Leo

From the publisher: When Lionel Savage, a popular poet in Victorian London, learns from his butler that they're broke, he marries the beautiful Vivien Lancaster for her money, only to find that his muse has abandoned him. Distraught and contemplating suicide, Savage accidentally conjures the Devil, who appears at one of the society parties Savage abhors. The two hit it off: the Devil talks about his home, where he employs Dante as a gardener; Savage lends him a volume of Tennyson. But when the party's over and Vivien has disappeared, the poet concludes in horror that he must have inadvertently sold his wife to the dark lord. Newly in love with Vivian, Savage plans a rescue mission to Hell.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Gentleman, but caution anyone consider reading it that it is definitely not a Victorian novel. It’s more like a 21st century American novel framed by Victorian memes. The many words and actions that would not truly fit within Victorian times did not bother me because the novel does not take itself seriously and so I didn’t take it seriously either.

The book is just fun – I did not go looking for deep meaning. The plot, characters, and dialog are amusing. There were passages that appealed to the English major in me (“I have never known books or love ever to fail, so I don’t see why they’d do so now” (p. 144)) and others that tickled my sense of whimsy. The female characters are no shrinking violets, but modern women with their own strong opinions.

The book is narrated by poet Savage, with occasional footnotes by his editor, a relative of Savage’s wife with whom relations are strained. I found the editor’s notes annoying at first, but eventually they grew on me, as did the character of the editor. The author enjoys poking fun at stereotypes – of the blustery Adventurer, the eccentric Inventor, the competent Butler, and the Devil himself. A lot happens – and nothing much happens at all.

I can imagine that some readers will despise The Gentleman. For example, while writing a poem, Savage tries desperately to make the word “Devil” one syllable, and this becomes a running joke of the sort you either find funny or deeply annoying.

Recommended to people who like nonsense and sweet books that are a little off.

The Galesburg Public Library owns The Gentleman, which is Forrest Leo’s first novel.

PS: The publisher does the author no favors by comparing the book to Wodehouse, as that sets up expectations that cannot possibly be met. Don’t pick this up expecting Wodehouse. 

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