Title: Red, White & Royal Blue (2019)
Author: Casey McQuiston
Publisher: St Martin’s Griffin
Release Date: 14th May 2019
Read: 19th – 20th April
Genre: LGBTQIA; romance; contemporary
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
“When his mother became President, Alex Claremont-Diaz was promptly cast as the American equivalent of a young royal. Handsome, charismatic, genius—his image is pure millennial-marketing gold for the White House. There’s only one problem: Alex has a beef with the actual prince, Henry, across the pond. And when the tabloids get hold of a photo involving an Alex-Henry altercation, U.S./British relations take a turn for the worse. Heads of family, state, and other handlers devise a plan for damage control: staging a truce between the two rivals. What at first begins as a fake, Instragramable friendship grows deeper, and more dangerous, than either Alex or Henry could have imagined. Soon Alex finds himself hurtling into a secret romance with a surprisingly unstuffy Henry that could derail the campaign and upend two nations and begs the question: Can love save the world after all? Where do we find the courage, and the power, to be the people we are meant to be? And how can we learn to let our true colors shine through? Casey McQuiston’s Red, White & Royal Blue proves: true love isn’t always diplomatic.“ (Synopsis from publisher)
” ‘Why do I have to go over there? He’s the one who pushed me into the stupid cake – shouldn’t he have to come here and go on SNL with me or something?’ ”
Red, White & Royal Blue is so completely far removed from my own frame of reference and experience, that I didn’t ever expect to be sat here, upon finishing it, with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat. But it’s the hope for understanding and for change within the heart of this book that’s the most enduring and universal feeling of all. It’s a book that, the author acknowledges, felt like it had to be something more than just a fluffy, AU after certain events in US political history. This book being released at this time, in this climate, in this presidency, makes it feel personal. It’s a book which seems a simple set-up: First Son of the United States (yes, FSOTUS is his official acronym) has what seems like a feud resulting in fisticuffs with one of the princes of the UK so the two of them have to make/fake nice and pretend to be best buds so it doesn’t plummet both of their respective families’ approval ratings on either side of the Atlantic. Of course, what should be a fairly obvious, trope-filled contemporary instead becomes something much more political and pressing. Without wishing to ruin anything about this book, anyone with even a cursory background in romance books or films will know where this blossoming fake friendship between these two is heading – but what Casey McQuiston focuses on isn’t just the growth of their relationship but also the very real ramifications of such a relationship that they can’t escape, especially given each of their very different (but equally scrutinised) statuses on the world stage. This book unflinchingly addresses questions of institutionalised homophobia, racism, imperialism, class, sexual harassment, blackmailing, and the list goes on… all under the guise of a cute romance about the First Son and an English prince.
“It’s not his fault the press won’t let it go, though; they they love the idea of them together as if they’re modern-day Kennedys. So, if he and Nora occasionally get drunk in hotel rooms together watching The West Wing and making loud moaning noises at the wall for the benefit of nosy tabloids, he can’t be blamed, really.“
The part of me that misses my A Level Government and Politics class also really enjoyed the insight we got into election campaigns and the First Family of the United States. In much the same way as films such as Chasing Liberty and First Daughter name-check bits of the process, and the likes of Veep and The West Wing differently portray the day-to-day of executive power, I actually believed the Claremont-Diaz family as living in the White House. I can also say without a doubt that Ellen Claremont-Diaz would surely be a long-shot for president but if she harnessed the right time, the right moment, post-Obama presidency, it’s not that much of a stretch to imagine her badass self taking office in the right political climate; that’s why I think I felt so invested in seeing her re-election campaign play out. Part of what builds this plot point into more than just that is the plethora of side characters in the Residence, from their security to their staffers. Zahra, head First Family PR wrangler also ended up being one of my favourite characters in the entire piece so a lot of credit must be given to Casey McQuiston for making her side-characters so distinct and believable – and for letting the POTUS be so blunt and swear-y.
“She was the last thing anybody expected to rise up out of Texas in the midst of the Iraq War: a strawberry blond, whip-smart Democrat with high heels, an unapologetic drawl, and a little biracial family.”
Red, White & Royal Blue also had a way of casually referencing snippets of pop culture, for example saying that Alex painted over Sasha Obama’s pink walls in the bedroom with blue when he moved into the White House, or that he enjoys surreptitiously watching a video of Justin Trudeau speaking French (dude, relatable), or pausing, mid-narrative to let the White House Trio take and caption an Instagram photo. Casey McQuiston managed to incorporate these elements into the narrative in such a clever way that it somehow made the First Family feel all the more real and situated in the book’s time, rather than the references coming across as cheap and easy, or simply forced into the narrative so that it seemed #relevant with the kids. There are so many examples of this sort of pop culture integration being done poorly in literature (and perhaps mileage may vary on how realistic a reader finds it) but I, for one, loved it and could definitely see the traditional media and social media outlets reacting in exactly the way portrayed during the course of the story. The White House Trio themselves were exactly of the age and disposition where their different attitudes towards public image would necessarily affect how they felt about social media and the pressure to be a certain thing in order to help their mother’s approval ratings stay solid in the wake of a presidential (re)election campaign.
“In actuality, it was carefully tested with focus groups by the White House press team and fed directly to People. Politics – calculating even in hashtags. […] Sasha and Malia were hounded and picked apart by the press before they were out of high school. The White House Trio got ahead of the narrative before anyone could do the same.“
As a Brit myself, I liked that this book tackled the institution of the British monarchy head-on, bluntly talking about its legacy of colonialism and its tendency to close ranks whenever anyone remotely deviant might slip into its confines. Prince Henry’s father, for example, was a hailed actor but there’s still a tension between his mum and his grandmother, the reigning Queen, over her daughter’s decision to marry an actor of all heinous things. It is moments of truth like this that override any perceived “slip” when it comes to research about the British monarchy. For example, reviewers have flippantly said the author gets it wrong by calling Henry Prince of Wales but what she gets wrong is just who holds that office and title, so I’ll forgive her any perceived sins in that camp. And I actually thought she did a pretty decent job of avoiding most of the horrendously false “Britishisms” that authors not from the UK tend to ascribe to English characters – the main one being the tricky, sticky Britain vs England vs UK issue. (It’s something not even all people from this island understand so, hey, I can’t start pointing fingers!) Aside from the occasional “bloody” or “bloke”, I wouldn’t say Henry’s vocabulary or speech pattern is particularly caricature-like either, rather it’s probably quite indicative of what your common and garden royal sounds like nowadays. I was mildly surprised by the author portraying Prince Philip and his wife Martha as a little too close to the bone for comfort – squint and it’s William and Kate, or at least as their harshest critics would portray them i.e. boring but the plain face needed for the likely heir to the crown in the decades to come. I didn’t expect that underlying commentary, but it was there, if you’re willing to look for it amongst the overarching story of Henry and Alex’s relationship.
“A curious thing about grief is the way it takes your entire life, all those foundational years that made you who you are, and makes them so painful to look back upon because of the absence there, that suddenly they’re inaccessible. You must invent an entirely new system.”
Henry and Alex’s relationship is undeniably the driving force behind the narrative and their interactions were full of genuine banter and moments that had me cackling aloud at my Kindle in a way that I haven’t in quite some time. (The amount of highlights I’ve done on this book is positively indecent.) Their personalities clashed and complemented, in the best way, and it was so very believable that they would challenge each other in ways that, at first, might seem like antagonism to the outside viewer and even, crucially, to themselves. But the main thing which powered this couple and their story was that Casey McQuiston took the time to build their characters fully, fleshing them out so they didn’t ever feel like stock characters or stereotypes easily dumped into a trope-y plot she wanted to tell; instead, I felt Henry’s deeply repressed anguish over his father’s death and his mother’s seeming lack of engagement with her family following this (something he’d never confronted because, he’s English, stiff upper lip, keep calm and carry on etc. etc.) just as much as I felt Alex’s hyperfocus on his planned trajectory for his eventual political career, ignoring any parts of his past that he didn’t feel like dragging into the light because it might cause a complication in his grand plans. Red, White & Royal Blue doesn’t shy away from portraying, in all its ugliness, the effects of institutionalised homophobia, whether that’s in the US or the UK. I knew, before reading this book, that it had to at least slightly address it (otherwise it would have felt a very convenient story far removed from the political reality), but I didn’t expect the book to confront it in such a real and honest way. My heart ached at some of the conversations in this book, and I’m not even exaggerating – the book made me so incredibly mad and sad all at once that prejudices about the gender of who people happen to love could be, in 2019, so bloody divisive and disastrous (potentially) for all involved.
“The whole charade takes and takes from them, takes days that were sacred […] and records over the tape with something more palatable. The narrative: two fresh-faced young men who love two beautiful young women and definitely not ever each other.”
I’m not gay, I’m not bisexual, I’m not royalty (more’s the pity, or maybe not after reading this), I’m not involved in politics in any way, I’m not Texan, I’m not even American for god’s sake, but something about this book punched me in the gut even so. It’s a life experience that is so far removed from my own that I have the luxury of not having to have confronted these kinds of issues in my life thus far. And, even so, this book genuinely touched me and made me feel so very wrapped up in Alex and Henry’s story and rooting for everyone to come out of the book unscathed – I can’t imagine what its enduring note of belief in yourself and hope for change must do for the people whose experiences do feel represented by this book. Red, White & Royal Blue is a book worth far more than the run-of-the-mill “big-hearted romantic comedy” tagline of its synopsis; the emphasis should be on the big heart of the book itself because, truly, this book is one of the good ones.
“Thinking about history makes me wonder how I’ll fit into it one day, I guess. And you too. I kinda wish people still wrote like that. History, huh? Bet we could make some.”
Thank you to St Martin’s Griffin for kindly providing me with an eARC of the book via NetGalley – I greatly appreciate the opportunity to read and review titles prior to their release, but this does not affect my overall opinion or review of the book itself.
Please note: the quotes above were taken from the eARC copy of the novel – this may be subject to change and differ from the published text of the novel.