Red, White & Royal Blue, by Casey McQuiston, is not a book I would have chosen for myself. I like my contemporary romances to have relatable characters, and I find it hard to sympathize with the romantic struggles of the very, very, rich. I admit enjoying historical romances, most of which feature wealthy Dukes or similar, but these stories are so far removed from reality in the quantity and qualities of these characters that they are easy to enjoy. In these trying times of pandemic and crazy right-wing politicians, my near-daily dose of Duke meets impoverished lady is a treasured escape. Why would I want to read about the highly privileged offspring of contemporary world leaders? I read enough of that in the news. But Red, White & Royal Blue was selected for my book club (now disbanded due to pandemic and layoffs), and I purchased a paper copy. It sat in my TBR pile for months, until I selected it for a bathtub read, largely out of a desire to reduce that pile.
Most people seem to love it, some hate it, and I found it good if not great. Spoilers ahead.
Red, White & Royal Blue, published in 2019, is set in a parallel universe United States, where the 2016 election was won by a Democratic, divorced, woman, with a biracial family. In other words, the United States became even more progressive and liberal after Obama. The right wing is still out there – Mitch McConnell and the Westboro Baptist church are mentioned and mocked, and a corrupt Republican presidential candidate obtains emails from a private server in a political thriller subplot – but racial and gender equality and diversity are unthreatened.
The president’s two children, Alex and June, in their early twenties, live at the White House. Together with the vice-president’s grand-daughter Nora, their best friend and former lover of Alex (and possibly June), they fully enjoy their celebrity status as young, hot, singles. They’re also brilliant and work hard in various fields, and we get regular reminders of how smart, wealthy, and desirable they are.
In the fall of 2019, Alex creates an international incident when he gets drunk and fights Henry, an English Prince and heir, at a royal wedding (the parallel British monarchy has an elderly and long reigning Queen, named Mary, but is otherwise different, and I never did figure out exactly where Henry fit in the line of succession). Henry, like Alex, is a tabloid heartthrob, and Alex has long held an unreasonable dislike for him. To patch things up after their fight, the PR departments of the two nations arrange for Alex and Henry to have a few friendly visits.
Romance novels tend to have an arc of friends to lovers, or enemies to lovers, with some obstacle to the relationship, because there’s not much story potential in a few dates and becoming lovers. A plot challenge is bringing together two people who are compatible, keeping them together long enough for propinquity to kick in, and quickly enough so the relationship is the central plot thread. One way to accomplish this is some form of a marriage of convenience (used in both historical and contemporary romance). The ordered friendly visits are essentially the marriage of convenience that turn our enemies to lovers (and, as is often the case, the attraction was there all along). Social media, and the ability of either party to fly across the Atlantic on a whim (rich kids, no pandemic), make up for the physical distance.
My biggest disappointment with the story is the obstacle to the relationship – the need to keep it secret. This is a common romantic obstacle in non-hetero romance, and it represents an odd stage for the non-hetero romance story: Society is open enough for these stories to be told and appreciated, but closed enough that the need for secrecy is an acceptable plot point. Hopefully, some day the need for secrecy obstacle will be relegated to historicals. Meanwhile, though a realistic obstacle, in this story it seems at odds with the otherwise utopian tone of the book, and it is ultimately revealed to have been a non-issue. Friends, family, co-workers, and most of the public are supportive. A few of Henry’s relatives are concerned, but their dislike is limited to how it affects the image of the royal family, not personal animosity. One is left wondering why the characters were ever worried about it.
I was also puzzled by the lesser obstacle of Alex coming to terms with his bisexuality. On the one hand, cool that it was not a big deal to him. On the other hand, given his past experiences, the bisexuality of his best friend, and his long interest in Henry, it seemed a little odd that he’d never thought about his same-sex attraction until he enjoyed a great surprise kiss from Henry, and that he then picked a new label relatively easily.
There’s a slight YA tone to the story – the coming of age arc, youth saving the day, and the concerns of the adult world being distant thanks in part to the wealth of the characters. The sex scenes drift to vagueness whenever things get steamy, to the point where sometimes I had to go back and read them again to see what, if anything, happened. During one, Alex says “After that, things got hazy,” and he’s correct. The main characters are fond of Star Wars (the original trilogy) and know the mid-1980s film, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which is a treat for older readers such as myself, until I wonder how likely it is that people born this century would be fans.
Those disappointments aside, this is a delightful read. First, of course, there is the happy ending, with everything working out for the characters, the broader utopian vision of the United States without Trump or the dark forces that support him, and the individual and international celebrations of gender, sexual, and racial equality and diversity. Romance novels tell us what is possible. That’s usually at the individual level, and while the relationships between Alex and Henry and their friends and family are perhaps too good to be true, they are something to aspire to. At the national level, while this story is firmly set in a pandemic-free 2020, with its climax the US election, it’s still a possible future. With the announcement of a Biden-Harris presidency, that possible future is a little more likely.
Second – the romance. Wow. We’d all love to be romanced the way these guys treat each other. The novel includes some of their texts and emails to each other, which are hot, sweet, and sometimes include quotes from historical novels and love letters, such as this passage from Michelangelo to Tommasco Cavalieri:
I know well that, at this hour, I could as easily forget your name as the food by which I live; nay, it were easier to forget the food, which only nourishes my body miserably, than your name, which nourishes both body and soul, filling the one and the other with such sweetness that neither weariness nor fear of death is felt by me while memory preserves you to my mind. Think, if the eyes could also enjoy their portion, in what condition I should find myself.”Letter, July 28, 1533, from The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti by John Addington Symonds, 1893.
Then there’s the museum scene. Alex and Henry sneak out of the palace one night, and explore a closed museum, ending with a dance to Your Song in one of the galleries. Unlikely? You bet. Sign of privilege? Absolutely. Heartbreakingly sweet grand romantic gesture? Oh yes.
Finally, the structure is impressive. McQuiston knows their Checkov’s gun and uses it repeatedly, to great effect. Symbolism is uneven, but present enough to be appreciated, and pacing is strong. There are a few great visuals that would be fun on film.
Despite the all-too-familiar White House setting, Red, White & Royal Blue is far enough from realistic to be a pleasant escape. Judging from the success of the book, many agree. The escapades of these wealthy privileged brats is told with enough humour and affirmative messaging that to criticize them or the story seems curmudgeonly. And I note that Henry, like the Dukes of my historicals, has misgivings about his source of wealth. The characters are hardly relatable, but they are decent folk at least, and the final scene of the story is a beautiful quiet moment that left me very pleased the book club recommended this book.