The Faustian Bargain of Princess Stories: A Conversation with Barbara Bourland
By Nate BrownDecember 22, 2022
The Force of Such Beauty by Barbara Bourland
During a long stay in a rehabilitation center, Caroline falls for a fellow patient, Finn, who is both handsome and charismatic, a man possessed of precisely the confidence that Caroline herself has lost. What follows is partially a love story (the mysterious Finn turns out to be the prince of Lucomo, a small Mediterranean country) and partially a cautionary tale about the trappings of wealth and public life. Beyond that, it’s a disturbing portrait of what a woman bargains away in search of love, security, and a place in the world.
In I’ll Eat When I’m Dead, Bourland pointed her social and aesthetic criticisms squarely at the world of glossy magazine journalism. In Fake Like Me, she skewered art-world economics. In The Force of Such Beauty, she turns her critical eye on princess narratives, revealing the decidedly unglamorous and transactional underpinnings of royal life.
Earlier this summer, Bourland invited me to her Baltimore townhouse to discuss the novel, where I was greeted by a very curious, intensely sweet, and enormous (130-pound) brindle Cane Corso named Frida who lounged on a dog bed the size of a standard twin mattress. As Frida looked on, Bourland and I talked about the novel, the evergreen appeal of royal narratives, and the precarity of identity both for royals and for those whom they govern, a conversation that feels particularly charged following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. The transcription of our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
NATE BROWN: In this new novel, you write so credibly about marriage and love and parenting, though it’s only the parenting that brings your protagonist, Caroline, any real joy. While I think it’s a specious claim to say that someone without kids can’t write about parental love (it’s true that neither you nor I have kids), it’s worth noting just how fierce Caroline’s love for her children is in the novel.
BARBARA BOURLAND: I think that happens when you have children. It’s biological, it’s inevitable — and it takes away your independence, unequivocally. If a princess is an archetype, Caroline herself is also an archetype: a person from South Africa, a young democracy that’s incredibly similar to ours, in maybe the best and the worst possible ways, who is cynical about it. When we become cynical about our capacity as a people to hold and maintain democracy, we become vulnerable to losing it.
For women, the princess story is that exact setup: it is the drive toward autocracy, because the family is a monarchy. Americans rejected this form of hereditary government, but we reiterate it when our most meaningful political unit is one that prioritizes a breadwinner and creates someone whose primary work is in the home. That work is unfunded by the state, largely socially unsupported, and makes children dependent on their parents instead of on the state. It defines functional families as those that have earned the right to have someone — be it a wife or another, poorer woman further down the economic chain — as their at-home cook, maid, nanny, etc.
These questions about the nuclear family, duty, autonomy, and the role of the state come up time and again in the book, and the parallels between the organization of the state and of the family are remarkable.
I’ve been married now for 10 years, and I didn’t really get it until I got married. I didn’t get it until I went to buy a dress and heard the unironic phrase, “It’s your day,” or the suggestion that I try on tiaras. I didn’t understand it until the day that we actually had the wedding, which was profoundly meaningful in the sense that we got to make real promises to each other in front of everyone we love and who loves us. As an emotional experience, that’s tough to beat. But the aesthetics of the wedding-industrial complex are so heavily gendered. I don’t know why I thought we would be exempt from them or that they wouldn’t apply to us. It’s millennial logic.
I found it telling that the language used during Finn and Caroline’s wedding is the same language employed during any wedding. Of course, Caroline and Finn have a royal wedding in the enormous ballroom of a Mediterranean castle. The other key difference, obviously, is the fact that, upon marrying Finn, Caroline formally becomes part of the state.
Princess stories are narratives of state control over women’s bodies. Princesses have no other job than to produce additional members of the body of hereditary government: that is the single and most salient expectation of their professional and personal identities. They are very specifically trading control of their reproductive futures, theoretically at least, for security from the state. To maintain that security, they are required to continue playing the role, the theatrical role, of a floating mother figure, until death. The implied benefit is that royal bodies “get” to nurture not only their families but also the world at large.
That’s the Faustian bargain women are tempted into all the time: if you make yourself beautiful enough, you can provide change in the world. If you adhere to this particular set of rules, then you can have power. That power is usually limited, however, to philanthropy.
After she’s married, even the relative glamor of a glitzy philanthropic event is overshadowed by questions of reproduction. Quite quickly, she’s treated like a broodmare.
One hundred percent: she is a broodmare.
When you began writing the book, did you know that this entrapment would be at the heart of the story?
I remember that I started writing this book at the point when I began to feel really interrogated on the subject of my fertility, but that was also the week that my first novel came out. I don’t really remember starting the book, but that’s what the time stamp on the first file is.
That’s so interesting to me, because having read each of your novels, I find it hard not to notice that the first, I’ll Eat When I’m Dead, and this new book are so much about the body.
Consider female celebrities, whether they are princesses or whether they are movie stars, and the amount of time they spend maintaining their physical forms. Their bodies look like anatomical models. You can see every muscle. They’re so defined. They spend so much time working out. So do male celebrities, of course. I don’t know if you read that lovely, tragic interview with Kumail Nanjiani, the comedian who became a Marvel superhero?
Oh, yes. He got so insanely jacked.
He got very, very jacked, but he had to do what most women are trained to do by default, which is pay a great deal of attention to the physical self. I think it’s implied that if we’re pretty enough, we can control what happens to us. That if we’re ugly, we’ll be punished. That being ugly is wrong. I think about that all the time.
When prominent women have work done to their face, it is generally met with repulsion, cruelty, and misogyny. Yet when it happens to Caroline, the reader’s response is one of sadness. It would really hurt to have your face surgically rebuilt. Whether it was because you fell and lost everything or because you elected to do it.
Maybe we’re more sympathetic to Caroline because her accident is caused by overuse? Her brutal training regimen has led to noncongenital arthritis, and she breaks her hip, stumbles, and demolishes her cheekbone during the fall. It’s an excruciating moment in the book.
Women athletes — this has been widely reported on, particularly in female runners — have long been advised to keep the weight off. Mary Cain, a Nike-sponsored runner in Oregon, is a very vocal example of somebody who suffered from overuse injuries. Her bones were breaking as a result of her training, but this is what she was told she had to do to get to the top.
Look, I love the Olympics. I look at the athletes’ bodies and their willpower, and I watch them trying, and I feel incredibly inspired. The summer that Simone Biles — the two summers that Simone Biles — just took it were amazing to watch. Everyone feels so united by those moments.
But the amount of sacrifice that young athletes like Biles have to make … They’re kids when they start. To get to that level, they often don’t go to school. They spend all day working out and getting stretched.
That life is so different from your average, suburban American kid’s life. Those kids get to go to four-year universities and get to have a wide variety of interests that they explore before their brains are done growing at 23. That kind of kid has all this time to think about what they might be interested in or what they might be good at.
But elite athletes and their families have to choose that life at an incredibly young age. When a career is over — and it’s always over, it always ends, a human tragedy that we watch playing out with every professional athlete — how does a person plan and prepare for that ending?
You can achieve all you want. You can do anything you want. But at the end of the day, at some point, the assumption has always been, you’re going to have to get pregnant and have a baby. And whether you carry a baby or not, having an infant is a hugely transformative experience that is so physical.
Caroline ultimately trades the physical taxation of marathons for the physical and emotional challenges of pregnancy and parenting, but the drive that served her well as an athlete doesn’t serve her well in this new life. Which leads me to one of my central questions about the novel: Can a person be famous, wealthy, and happy without being at least partially ignorant? Is being ignorant, in some fundamental way, a prerequisite to having fame, wealth, and happiness simultaneously?
This is the great problem in all of my books and my own personal worldview, which is incredibly negative. Because whether you believe that we live in a postlapsarian society, a fallen world, from a religious perspective, or whether you observe, from a humanist perspective, that almost every single part of your day is inextricably connected to the exploitation, oppression, and destabilization of the world’s poorest people, it’s very difficult for any of us to lay claim to goodness.
My first book is explicitly about that, and I wrote that book in 2014, and absolutely nothing has changed. Arguably, things have gotten worse. In 2014, I was seeing the rise of a marketing conversation about “ethics” in garment manufacturing. I found that fascinating, because that industry is fundamentally unethical. Which is fine. Basically, everything is unethical.
What I do love, and am fascinated by, are all the ways that people attempt to convince themselves that they are ethical. That we are good. That we are righteous. That we’re able to do things that have more meaning and thereby excuse the things that we do that are fundamentally negative. You can’t excuse the exploitation of the poor in global manufacturing, yet no one wants to wake up every day and feel like they’re a bad person.
Would you say it’s impossible to be personally good in a system in which you’re complicit in evils?
Yes. I think it is impossible to be personally good.
The thing about wealth that is so, so tempting for people to believe is this idea: “If you make everything good for yourself, then you can make things good for other people.” That’s the bargain, even as it is a lie every single time.
After they’re married, we see Caroline take on royal duties, and we quickly come to find that even this newfound authority is its own kind of illusion because, ultimately, she isn’t empowered to make fundamental change. She’s empowered to go to lunch, to dress lavishly for state affairs, and that’s about it.
I think about this all the time — the ways that I convince myself I have power, and the ways that I lose power. It’s been hard for me not to see having children as a way to lose power over a great deal of my life. But that is also because I do this a dumb way — I only write books. I don’t have another thing structurally in my life that I could participate in that’s outside of myself.
I find myself being tricked all the time into believing or feeling things that I shouldn’t. Particularly, in this novel, the princess idea — that if you make yourself valuable to a valuable man, you will feel safe. I’m astonished at how much of my life has been colored by that question.
I felt a particular sympathy for Caroline because she’s an outsider to royal culture, but Finn is also subject to the arcane rules and regulations of his circumstances.
Masculinity is a prison, too.
Absolutely. I don’t want to spoil this for readers, so I’ll just say that when Finn really does exercise individual agency, he ends up harming a lot of other people.
When I went back through the book a second time, I tried to flag every moment that was prepping me for two ultimate revelations. I won’t say what they are, but I will say that I found myself thinking that this must have been complicated to plot! Were you working from these eventualities when writing the book? Or do you write your way toward an ending that’s unknown until you reach it?
I always know what the ending will be.
Does that make it easier to provide those breadcrumbs along the way?
Writing this book, dealing with these archetypes that have been so heavily trafficked in, and trying to make that new or surprising in a way that’s genuinely appealing — I found that challenging. Again and again, I would write things out, look at them a day or a week or a month later, then think, “That’s too neat. It’s too pat. It does something that I’ve seen before,” or “It does something that’s too obviously something I haven’t seen before.”
It was like building a cake out of air. I wanted it to be gauzy, even as you felt a sense of Caroline, and who she is. She and I are not very similar. It’s difficult to write a character who is not formally educated — certainly that’s a bag of tricks that I used ad nauseam in my first two books. To take that away from myself was like tying my hands behind my back.
Caroline isn’t nearly as savvy as your earlier protagonists. Because we know that she’s been so hyperfocused on only one element of her life, it’s credible that there are fundamental aspects of day-to-day living that she doesn’t know, which makes her vulnerable to what she ultimately suffers.
That’s true of all of us. We all think that we know things about ourselves. We all think that we understand that we have —
Well, I’m pretty self-actualized.
Exactly! We can stand in a room full of people who would all say, “I am a feminist.” But show them a picture of Meg Ryan’s face, and they’ll say, “Oh my god, what did she do to herself?” You know? The misogyny that we hold inside ourselves is overwhelming. I wanted to talk about that in a way that wasn’t a lesson, per se. I wanted to come at this feeling with love, and empathy, and care, because I don’t know how else to handle it anymore.
The first idea for the book came when I was in Paris with a friend of mine, in a gallery. She was very pregnant. We were looking at 18th- and 19th-century portraits of all these beautiful women, these dead prizes. They were stuffed and stitched into whatever they were wearing; they probably had 100 miscarriages; and that was the best life you could have. Now I look around and think, “Wait, people are still choosing this? This is the best life we can have?” Meghan Markle had started dating Prince Harry at that point. And that, to me, was shocking because Markle is really smart.
But it doesn’t matter how smart you are. That’s the thing. It doesn’t matter. I’m not saying this to criticize Meghan Markle, because I think very highly of her, actually. I think that she was blinkered by all of the things that it is utterly reasonable to be blinkered by. She thought she could do it. In a sense, by getting out and taking Harry with her, she did. I was so impressed that it actually happened.
Markle’s escape is not unlike Caroline’s attempt to flee in the very first moments of this novel.
It happened the week, I think, that my editor bought this book. I had been working on it as a draft, and working on it, and working on it, not sending it. And then I finally sent it. It was right before COVID-19. And I sent it to my editor, just as Meghan Markle had done a runner. I was stunned. There were so many things in the book that I’d written that Markle wound up saying or implying. The big one is that no one ever asked her if she was okay.
Unlike Caroline, Markle found a way out.
I’m amazed that she pulled it off. I can’t imagine what that must have taken.
I also think it’s interesting that this is set against the backdrop of a 2008 financial crash. You mention some of the specific financial instruments at play, like collateralized debt obligations, but the long and short of it is that Lucomo is leveraged up to its ears, which means that the royal family is also leveraged up to its ears. We realize that when we’re talking about collateral, we’re not just talking about land, buildings, and yachts.
We’re talking about people.
That becomes clear — and fraught — in the book’s final act, when we realize that Caroline has everything that she could have imagined. She’s got wealth, security, safety, fame, a loving husband, children she adores. You do her the service of not downplaying her love for her kids, but it becomes evident that those kids are now chips in a complicated poker game, a game that she didn’t consent to playing — except that, of course, when you look back at all the documents that she signed and the promises that she made to Finn, she did consent. She might not have known the precise meaning of that consent, but on paper, at least, her life is precisely the one she signed up for.
When you pick up a piece, your Monopoly shoe or your iron, and you play the game, you’re tacitly agreeing that the rules of the game are fair and you’ll abide by them, whatever they might turn out to be. During the last presidency, when my fellow Americans were becoming so cynical about democracy, I think a lot of us were looking at Europeans and thinking: “They’ve got fairness; they’ve got socialized medicine.”
When I was 28, I went back to Brussels and had this lovely conversation with a guy I grew up with who’s Danish. I was working in a production studio. He was a freelance graphic designer; so was his wife. And they were expecting twins. And because of the way Danish healthcare worked, I think they were each going to get a year of leave.
And he asked, of course, “Are you going to have a baby?”
I said, “I don’t have that kind of state support, so, no.”
Among my European friends, I see all this support. But they also have Liechtenstein and Andorra, Monaco, the Vatican, Luxembourg, Malta — microstates that work to hoard wealth for oligarchs from authoritarian petrostates. The microstate, which in economics is known as a node — these nodes that money passes through in this great global, three-dimensional doily. Nodes eventually became cities. That’s London, that’s Paris, that’s Amsterdam. That is real estate. The way that money is manipulated in real estate is to make something out of nothing.
I think about the evolution of commodities in all of my books. Gold is a good example. It’s in all of my books — and I should note that my husband is writing a book about it as a material, so I suppose we’re both obsessed with it — but here’s an explanation that relates to its use in Fake Like Me. It’s hard to manipulate the price of gold. It’s difficult in the sense that, even if you wouldn’t get in trouble for doing so, it would be hard to do. If you were a bank, there’s all kinds of ways that you are prohibited from doing so based on where and how you do business. But the second that you put gold on a painting, if you use it as gilt, or if you put it on the frame, then it becomes a commodity you can freely manipulate.
Take one thing that is theoretically worth something, and you turn it into another thing that is supposedly worth something else. All of these different pieces come together to build a society that increasingly feels deeply unfair to most of the people in it. We justify all this with this course of beautiful things passing in front of us; we’ve been doing that for thousands of years. Although I think that the generation behind us is increasingly disinterested in that. Consider Gen Z’s devotion to abjection; I hope they keep it up!
I agree that Gen Z is more interested in rejecting bad models than millennials have been. Caroline is a millennial, and she marries into a system presumably thinking that she can reform it from within. Is it fair to say that each of your novels asks what it is to be a woman living in a restrictive system?
I can only come at this from the perspective of a cisgendered woman, from being born in the container.
Here’s another thing that I am so impressed by, and I didn’t expect Gen Z to do, bu the interrogation that they do, in their generational mainstream, of gender again, and again, and again — I think about my gender, too, all the time. I’ve never experienced any body dysphoria. I feel very lucky to have been born in the body that is my body. But the ideas of what women are affect everyone who elects to refer to themselves as a woman, or who sees themselves as a woman, who feels like a woman. Womanhood comes with all of this baggage.
We started this conversation noting that the family unit is both powerful and political. That’s certainly a traditional idea in American life, right, that family is the nucleus of one’s life? Two and a half kids, white picket fence, etc.
Dog and a cat that get along.
Yeah. A wife who telegraphs sexual availability and fertility.
I’ve talked about this a lot with my friend Lizzy Goodman, who is my writing partner on the screenplay for Fake Like Me. There’s a story I told her that has a line we’ve repeated to each other several times. Years ago, I was out with a group of friends, in some “cool dudes’” art studio or whatever. I was chatting with one of them, until I said, “I’ve got to go meet my husband.” He replied, incredulously, “You’re married?” And I said, “Yes.” He replied, “Well, what are you here for?”
I mean. “What am I here for?!”
What a question!
What a question. Women’s sexual availability and fertility: It is the thing that we are supposed to bring to life and to embody, in every space. We are supposed to reproduce this unit of the family. And the family, again, is this reproduction of the monarchy. You have a person who makes the decisions, you have the person who is the caretaker, you have the dependent, and it’s all a tax break.
Oh, that’s what I meant to say at the beginning of this conversation. After I got married, I looked at our taxes and thought, “Whoa, this is so unfair.”
It’s remarkable, right?
I hadn’t thought about it until I did it, and I hadn’t expected it to feel so wrong. I also didn’t understand how socially meaningful it would be. Especially with older adults.
I was a chaotic young woman. I’m really tall, and my hearing is bad, so I’m really loud; I know distinctly how it feels not to be liked. And then I got married, and I became acceptable.
Has this notion of acceptability played a role in your writing life, too? You’ve published three novels now, so you’ve become familiar with the process of writing and presenting work to the world, knowing that, at some point, friends and family members will be reading your work. How’s it been this time around?
You know, I was very nervous to have my mother read The Force of Such Beauty. It’s about motherhood, and the things that we learn about motherhood and self and women. And she is my mother. I love her so much. Maybe that’s part of why this book is so tender toward that question, because it’s very personal. When she got to the end — and this was great because we were in the same house — I heard her from another room going [makes a gasping noise], and then she yowled.
Perfect! What more of a response could an author want?
Boy, you just can’t think about any of that stuff when you’re working on a book, can you?
But it’s only natural for an author to worry about whether their books are good or bad, no?
When I wrote the first book, I felt so free to just be able to do it. We had moved to Baltimore, and I thought, “Okay, well I have a year, basically. I have a year that we Airbnb parts of the house” because we didn’t have any money. It kept me cleaning, kept me vacuuming and doing laundry. I didn’t know anybody here. It made me feel less lonely. And we just skated by, and I told my husband, “I’m going to do this for a year. If I’m not successful at it, I’ll go do something else. But I have this idea and I think I can do it.”
I’ve never felt like that in my life. It was the first time I ever did anything for myself. And it was so fun. Then, once it was acquired, I felt the way that all people feel, I think, when they’re working on their first book, which I hear from everyone I know who’s working on a debut novel — you’re impatient. “I just want to move on from this.” The thing you learn is that you actually never, ever get to move on from your books.
What a comforting thought!
I’m really sorry. It’s such a tragic thing to say. You’ll forget about it at times, but they do stay with you forever.
After figuring that out, I thought, well, if I’ve elected to focus on a single pursuit for a period of time and it’s going to be a thing that’s going to follow me around forever, boy, does it matter to me that it is fundamentally good. Particularly as a reader — I love to read, I take such joy in picking up a novel and falling into it.
That’s what I want to make: things that are for readers. They’re for me, and they come out of me — there’s no question about that — but I wouldn’t do this just for me.
Nate Brown is a fiction writer and editor whose stories have appeared in The Iowa Review, Mississippi Review, Five Chapters, REAL, Carolina Quarterly, and elsewhere. He’s the managing editor of the Austin-based literary journal American Short Fiction, and he lives in Baltimore, where he teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University.
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