Red, White & Royal Blue
by Casey McQuiston is a book that has been on my shelf for ages and that I’ve read at least three times so far. The book is a romantic comedy on the surface, but there are layers to it which take it far deeper than the usual meet-cute, random misunderstanding, ugly crying, and eventual happy ending. Rather, this book forces the reader to think about themes of identity, sexuality and sense of self, privilege, family, political and social obligations, and so much more while wrapping the reader up in fluffy moments and well-timed sarcasm. What more could a reader ask for?
The story is told from the point of view of Alex Claremont Diaz, the son of the first female US president. Alex, his sister June, and their mother attend the royal wedding of Prince Phillip of the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, this means Alex will have to interact with Henry, Prince Phillip’s younger brother and fourth in line for the throne, and Alex and Henry rather dislike each other. They get into an altercation and end up falling into the $75,000 wedding cake, much to the joy of the press in attendance. Alex and Henry are forced by both sides to enter into a PR friendship to repair any damage their rivalry and latest stunt may have caused. However, along the way they get to know each other, and Alex learns that Henry is gay and he, himself, identifies as bisexual. They begin a secret relationship with each other and, ultimately, fall in love, uprooting tradition along the way.
Right from the third chapter, we are hit with our first strong theme: the idea of white privilege. Up until now, Alex has come across as a bit impulsive and narcissistic, but not unpleasantly so. However, when Alex and Henry are forced inside a closet (irony – so much irony) while hiding from a potential security incident, Alex opens up to Henry about why he dislikes him so much. Mostly, the reasons are less to do with Henry himself and more to do with how people view Alex, being an immigrant, non-white, and the son of the first female President of the United States.
“I don’t know. Doing what we do is fucking hard. But it’s harder for me. I’m the son of the first female president. And I’m not white like she is, can’t even pass for it. People will always come down harder on me. And you’re, you know, you, and you were born into all of this, and everyone thinks you’re Prince fucking Charming. You’re basically a living reminder I’ll always be compared to someone else, no matter what I do, even if I work twice as hard.”
From this excerpt, you can clearly see how frustrated Alex is, and it greatly humanised his previously narcissistic character. After this point, whenever he mentions his grades or class/work load or having to use his handsome wiles to get support, we see it as him trying to make himself worthy of his status and not merely tooting his own horn as the reader first thought.
I really loved the whole idea of identity in this book, not only in terms of sexuality, but in who we actually are in our lives. Alex and Henry play their ‘roles’ in life, trying to slot into what’s expected of them as the son of the president and a member of the UK royal family. Quite often, those roles take away or overshadow other aspects of the characters and it’s interesting to see how much of a person’s identity is made up of familial expectation and societal pressures, and how much is truly theirs to shape on their own.
”Alex’s image is all charisma and genius and smirking wit, thoughtful interviews and the cover of GQ at eighteen; Henry’s is placid smiles and gentle chivalry and generic charity appearances, a perfectly blank Prince Charming canvas. Henry’s role, Alex thinks, is much easier to play.”
The idea that politics and public image is so much greater and important than being true to yourself is one we see often and every day in the media, and I love that this book doesn’t shy away from anything that might make the reader feel uncomfortable, and challenges them head on. Henry has to embody the ‘British’ ideology, and therefore be kind and calm and charitable and always carefully blank. Alex is expected to be the opposite, always witty and fun and fast-paced. When Alex has rare moments to sit with his sister and Nora and just relax, we see his true self come through and find ourselves remembering that these characters are in their early 20s and should be allowed to have fun.
Sexuality is a huge part of the book, as Alex realises he’s bisexual after developing feelings for Henry. The way this self discovery is handled in the book is utterly beautiful because it’s not dragged out. There are not chapters upon chapters of humming and hawing about whether he is or isn’t straight. Instead, when Alex begins to suspect he has feelings for Henry, he begins to explore the idea of his sexuality by talking it over with his mother, his sister, and Nora, all of whom are completely supportive about the whole thing. McQuiston even manages to put sparks of humour though what would be an otherwise tense situation:
“The next slide is titled: ‘Exploring your sexuality: Healthy, but does it have to be with the Prince of England?’ She apologizes for not having time to come up with better titles. Alex actively wishes for the sweet release of death.”
My personal favourite, though, is when this little nugget arises: “You’ve been, like, Draco Malfoy–level obsessed with Henry for years.” My Drarry-obsessed heart gave an excited flutter at this line because anyone who has that level of obsession for someone is obviously doomed to have romantic feelings involved. It gave the whole thing a ‘normalised’ aspect, as we don’t expect the first family to be reading fanfiction or be Drarry-shippers, or even know what Drarry is! I’m not ashamed to admit I spat out my tea at that bit and gave a rather undignified squawk.
After discussing things with his loved ones, Alex very quickly accepts this new side to himself, McQuiston’s truth that “straight people…probably don’t spend this much time convincing themselves that they’re straight” cutting through any other thought Alex could be having. It’s a very good point and one that often gets overlooked by those going through this journey of self discovery.
The scene where Alex comes out to his dad is lovely. Seeing him be utterly accepted with discussion or reservation is something that everyone who’s LGBTQ+ wishes for and very rarely gets.
His dad slaps him on the bicep with the spoon, leaving a splatter of crema and cheese behind. “Have a little more faith in your old man than that, eh? A little appreciation for the patron saint of gender-neutral bathrooms in California? Little shit.”
“Okay, okay, sorry!” Alex says, laughing. “I just know it’s different when it’s your own kid.”
His dad laughs too, rubbing a hand over his goatee. “It’s really not. Not to me, anyway. I see you.”
Although being bisexual is clearly a large part of Alex, it’s not all of him and doesn’t define his actions or rule his entire personality. Alex has simply discovered another facet of himself that he hadn’t given enough attention to, and the way his family and friends simply nod and smile with utter acceptance is the most beautiful thing of this entire book. So often people are forced to hide their sexuality, especially in a political environment, and I’m so glad that this wasn’t in McQuiston’s plan for Alex.
This brings us smoothly to a theme that is close to my heart and many of the readers of No Stunts magazine: closeting. This book may add wry humour to the topic, but the fact of the matter is that Henry is completely and utterly closeted by his family and royal tradition. It’s only when we learn that they must keep their new relationship a secret that we think back to the start of the novel to all the NDA’s Alex had to sign and the thoughts he had of them being more thorough and extensive than any other he’d had to sign prior to that moment.
McQuiston, instead of burying this theme or having it be hinted at through the pages, uses it boldly, making many references to closets, quite often having Henry, or Alex and Henry, hide in them at varying points within the novel.
“Alex snatches a shirt and boxers at random from the floor, shoves them at Henry’s chest, and points him towards the closet. “Get in there.”
“Quite,” he observes.
“Yes, we can unpack the ironic symbolism later. GO.”
Even though Alex and Henry agree to be together, casually at first and then more seriously as they fall in love, Henry is always mindful that he’s not allowed to have this side of himself public. There are occasions within the book where his actions to keep his sexuality hidden hurts Alex and, finally, when their relationship is leaked and made public, Henry challenges his family about the unfairness and hypocrisy of it all.
”What are we even defending here, Philip? What kind of legacy? What kind of family, that says, we’ll take the murder, we’ll take the raping and pillaging and the colonizing, we’ll scrub it up nice and neat in a museum, but oh no, you’re a bloody poof? That’s beyond our sense of decorum! I’ve bloody well had it. I’ve sat about long enough letting you and Gran and the weight of the damned world keep me pinned, and I’m finished. I don’t care. You can take your legacy and your decorum and you can shove it up your fucking arse, Philip. I’m done.”
This moment made me want to grab a huge pride flag and wrap Henry up in it. There are so many dark and seedy aspects of the English royal family, and of politics in general, but somehow the whole world felt it was coming to an end simply because Henry was gay. The way he finally stood up for himself and Alex made me genuinely whoop and it gave me hope for those couples in the real world who have been forcibly closeted to finally be free – you know who I’m talking about!
I’ve mentioned that I’ve read this book several times and I’m likely going to read it again once I finish this review, because it’s just that good! You get all the serious themes of real life mixed together with entirely relatable ‘crazy’ characters. So often, the first family or the royal family seem so far removed that they can’t be real people, but they are. They have their quirks and flaws just like everyone else, and this book does a fantastic job at showing that. It also gives hope to the reader that things can always get better, that change is a tangible thing, and that equality is something always worth striving for.
Red, White, & Royal Blue, the movie, will be released on Amazon Prime on the 11th of August 2023!