The Gentleman’s Gambit
by Evie Dunmore
December 5, 2023 · Berkley
I know a book is depressing when a) the sex scenes don’t perk things up and b) I need to comfort read Murderbot to feel okay about life again.
Catriona Campbell is a suffragist and an academic. She has a belter of a start in this book as she emerges from a loch nude and there’s a man birding on the shores. Legitimately birding, and therefore utterly flummoxed by her appearance. Catriona is defiant and unafraid. This marks the only time in the book when this is the case. Turns out that Catriona is deeply introverted, rather melancholy and tends towards being negative. She is weighed down by life and her mental health. Nevertheless, up until the halfway point, I still felt really protective of her.
The birder in question, Elias Khoury, is visiting Catriona’s father. The real reason he’s there is to gain access to a collection of artifacts that have been taken from his homeland. The plan is to repatriate them. The first third of the book is interesting because there’s a lot of interesting historical detail as we learn about Elias’ history. Elias himself is a confident man with charisma to spare.
Elias plans to use that charisma to cosy up to Catriona to get her to help him with his plan of repatriating the artifacts. Considering how protective of Catriona I felt, I was furious that Elias planned to do this to her. At about the 30% point of the book, one of Catriona’s friends points out that Elias has been involved in a ‘theft’ in France and Catriona confronts him on it. Turns out it was another repatriation case and Catriona agrees to help Elias with his plan even though it will damage her father’s reputation and by extension her own.
You would think this would be the primary source of tension in this book, but it hardly features. Mostly the tension is in the characters and their romantic pasts – past loves, past crushes, past affairs. Both have been tremendously unsuccessful in love and it has left them scarred. They spend a lot of time, too much really, unpacking the past. At 432 pages, this book is just too long. There’s too much reflecting on past loves or crushes – and in such tiring detail. There’s too much stagnation in the middle of the book.
Mostly though, it’s just too depressing. Towards the end of my time with this book, I dreaded picking up my Kindle to keep reading. It became a chore. So I threw in the towel. I could not bring myself to persevere through a book that left me feeling so low. In all seriousness, this book was affecting me more than I wanted it to. So much time is spent dwelling on all that is wrong and bad and hard, and Catriona doesn’t appear to have any fight in her at all. She is buffeted by the winds of what I assume is poor mental health and never really takes a stand. She is despondent and although she is cooking up a plan to get the items repatriated, she does this on the side, separate from Elias. You would think that this brings an element of excitement to the plot, but Catriona’s dull approach keeps spirits at a low ebb. I know it is impossible to diagnose a book character, I do wonder if Catriona is depressed or if she’s just naturally low-energy, low-mood?
If I had signed up for a book about the walking-through-thigh-deep-mud feeling that can come with mental health struggles, I’d probably quite enjoy this book. But I was fooled by the jaunty tone of the cover and blurb. This is not a fun book. This is a serious book about serious things, but it all becomes seriously tiresome to the point that I stopped caring about the characters and what happened to them.
I’m curious though, about your experience. Did you read this book? How did you find it? I made it to 70% before I couldn’t do it anymore. Did you make it to the end?