Romance novels are an escape: from the mundanity of life, from a love drought, from a tired relationship. Red, White & Royal Blue was designed explicitly as an escape from modern politics, showcasing an incredibly utopian world in which Americans were willing to vote for a Democratic woman President in 2016, and the royal family are more than figureheads propping up a rapidly decomposing system. It could never happen, but it’s nice to dream. Casey McQuiston’s feel good hit of the Summer is probably the gayest mass market title of 2019, and its success is heartening.
Alex Claremont-Diaz is the First Son of the United States. He hates Henry, the Prince of Wales. Or does he? After an international incident causes a PR snafu, the White House and Buckingham Palace decide to create a series of Instagrammable moments between the two statesmen. Alex gradually realises that Henry isn’t the stuck up prig he’s always appeared to be, and that perhaps Alex’s own contempt for the man sublimates other, deeper feelings that have long been ignored.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Red, White & Royal Blue is a fantasy about the way the world could be: one in which the British Royal Family means something, is cognisant (at least behind closed doors) of its role in imperialism, and performs duties beyond the ceremonial; for the American part, the family of the President is expected to do something more than just live on or around premises. And, while this is a world where the UK still voted for Brexit, McQuiston is not interested in confronting UK politics; the British Monarchy is a fundamentally conservative institution, but despite their increased influence and power in this book versus reality, they just kind of hover over the Kingdom — and McQuiston’s fictionalised Queen of England is a nasty piece of work.
Even in a book of wild impossibilities, not everything in Red, White & Royal Blue rings true. Alex, his sister June, and the Vice President’s granddaughter Nora are collectively known as “the White House Trio”, a name that McGuiston assures us was focus grouped to death. It is a name that is neither catchy or meaningful, and it is irritating to read it repeatedly knowing that a change as simple as “the White House Three” rolls off the tongue and the brain so much better.
So where Red, White & Royal Blue ultimately grounds itself is in the characterisation. Alex is given a story arc that acknowledges the existence of bisexuality and allows it to be applied to a male character, which is a still rare brand of progressiveness for a male character in 2019. There is indeed a journey of self-discovery, but Alex is more concerned with his place in the world and the role models that he has to live up to.
Conversely, Henry travels from a cipher to a dimensional prince and son of a former James Bond — presumably a replacement for Timothy Dalton, and not that unusual for a book where the author has essentially erased several generations worth of royals — and becomes entirely sympathetic despite his thoroughly alien existence. Where the US side of politics is still divided into Democrats and Republicans, for the UK part of proceedings you must put aside whatever feelings you have for the British Monarchy; Henry’s family doesn’t have Prince Andrew in it, at the very least.
Because the characters have such high profile public personae, Red, White & Royal Blue is able to resist the traps of arbitrary misunderstandings and unreasonable self-doubt on the couples’ behalves. There are real world things that get in the way and they, within the boundaries of disbelief suspended by this novel, are credible. It is important that Alex and Henry are flawed but not compromised by McQuiston’s treatment of their situation, and she upholds her end of the bargain with rare finesse.
Red, White & Royal Blue is intermediate romance, which means that while it is not chaste, no real detail is entered into when intercourse occurs between its pages. There is nothing graphic to plow through here, so to speak; those looking for erotica will be disappointed, but those who would blush at the very concept of two men kissing are still likely to be scandalised, and should reassess their reactions to such literature.
There is no way that anything that happens within the pages would ever be allowed to occur in real life but, if there’s any cause for escapism, it’s the world’s current political landscape. The jobs may be far-fetched, but the characters ring true and there’s even a dash of dual palace-intrigue for good measure. Red, White & Royal Blue is exactly the right brand of wild implausibility and goo-goo-eyed romance for anyone who needs to get the hell away from whatever the hell it is that we’re currently living through.