Two brothers, home-educated by a redoubtable mother and from merchant stock, embark on the Grand Tour. They set out with the intention of meeting people of Quality, the good and the great of British society, armed with with the classics and a love of Culture. Instead, they find that class cannot be learnt, and that love can be toxic.
Title: The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle
Author: Neil Blackmore
Publisher: Random House, Cornerstone, Hutchison
Publication Date: e-book 30th April 2020
First off, great cover. It promises something between Melmoth and The Binding and, actually, this book isn’t far off. There’s something sinister in the control that the parents exert over Edgar and Benjamin, their sons, in this book, wrapped up in the guise of trying to do what’s best for them and the family’s social standing.
The period that this book seems more for convenience and setting, than much else, though. It allows the backdrop of the European Grand Tour (which presents images of a romantic and sun-kissed Europe basking in the glow of the Enlightenment) as well as the fear and persecution of homosexuality – two of the main themes of this book. The author admits to anachronisms, of which there feel plenty, which means that at times the only purpose of the time period (and any characters that aren’t Edgar, Benjamin or Lavelle) is just as a device for the story.
But the way the characters wield knowledge and learning like blunt weapons, as they were not born into the innate knowledge of the upper echelons, gives across a similar feeling to reading The History Boys – something I’m choosing to interpret this way, rather than criticising the author for.
The description of Mr Lavelle as ‘intoxicating’ is perfect. Like a strong wine, or a dangerous drug, his enigmatic and classically beautiful character appeals to Benjamin, gradually leading him astray – although, can anyone be led astray unless they really want to be?
Unfortunately, the intoxicating nature of Horace Lavelle means that at times he appears subversive for the sake of it, rude and antagonistic without the charm and charisma that Benjamin apparently sees in him. His desire to ‘reject, reject, reject’ the substance that society is built on at this time, without the means to do so, or those willing to listen to him, apart from Benjamin, render him somewhat impotent.
The perfect counterpoint to all of this discovery and revolutionary talk is Edgar, who is desperate to fulfil and realise the wishes of his parents and maintain the status quo, and his place in it. He sees the Grand Tour as his opportunity to ascend into the upper echelons of society, to secure the family’s business and you feel both embarrassment for him and his frustrations as he struggles naively against the snobbery of the upper classes, as well as his own brother’s apparent desire to thwart everything they’ve been trained for.
I imagine this would make a very enjoyable book club read. However, I personally found the ending to be more melodramatic than reasonable – it didn’t quite stick the landing, which was a shame, as it was one step away from being The Binding levels of enjoyable (at least for me).
3.5 rounded down to 3 stars.
I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.