DECEMBER 28, 2019
WHEN I WAS A KID, I read books like my life depended on it. The novels of Beverly Cleary, L. Frank Baum, and Laura Ingalls Wilder were, for me, like air, water, and shelter: necessary for basic functioning. As I got older, I graduated to authors like Lois Lowry and Sharon Creech, though my favorite writer (naturally) was J. K. Rowling. Following the publication of the third Harry Potter novel, I wrote Rowling a fan letter; she responded by personally addressing my concerns about the fates of certain characters. (“I am not telling anyone who is going to die,” she insisted, “but I would like to reassure you that I, too, am exceptionally fond of Hermione.”)
In those days, reading was something I did automatically, with unthinking pleasure. It required no effort. I never noticed the page numbers.
All that changed when I became a teenager. I still loved the Harry Potter books, but few other novels held my attention with the same intensity. Partly this was a function of age — now that I was older, I was eager to try on different identities: the theater kid, the flute player. But the books themselves had something to do with my changing reading habits, too. I wanted the 14-year-old equivalent of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle: a novel that was entertaining, well made, and vaguely relevant to my life experience as a quiet, nervous high schooler who hadn’t yet figured out he was gay. If such a novel existed, I couldn’t find it.
To be sure, I enjoyed a few adult books in these years — The Lovely Bones, I Know This Much Is True — but getting through them involved more effort than reading had ever required. This was to say nothing of the YA titles I encountered, which presented visions of the world so unlike my own, I might as well have been reading science fiction.
As a kid, books had alleviated my loneliness. Now they only accentuated it.
What would it have meant to encounter a book like Red, White & Royal Blue in high school? A great deal, I suspect. Casey McQuiston’s debut novel isn’t marketed at teenagers, and its sexual content would likely make many parents uncomfortable. And yet, while reading this propulsive, pulpy rom-com, I couldn’t help but imagine how much my younger self might’ve enjoyed it — how it represents a whole category of books that might’ve helped fill the literary drought of my adolescence.
Red, White & Royal Blue concerns a rivalry-turned-romance between the Prince of Wales and the First Son of the United States. Alex Claremont-Diaz, whose mother is running for a second term for president, is sharp, passionate, and eager to kick-start his own political career. Prince Henry (full name: Henry George Edward James Fox-Mountchristen-Windsor) is much more measured and guarded — a Jane Austen lover with a smile “made to be printed on money.”
Though the handsome young men begin the novel appearing to hate each other, their relationship shifts when Prince Henry kisses Alex on a snowy New Year’s Eve in the Kennedy Garden. Henry is gay and knows it, but Alex has always thought of himself as straight. His feelings for Henry, however, give him reason to reconsider, and soon he comes out as bisexual.
What follows is a kind of queer bodice-ripper for the Trump era, a novel whose political fantasies feature as prominently as its romantic escapades. Here, a hookup in Kensington Palace is no less of a turn-on than the idea of a president who conducts herself with dignity; and though it’s fun watching Henry and Alex ravage each other below a painting of Alexander Hamilton, it’s also a welcome relief to occupy a fictional world where expertise, truth, and kindness have political currency. This is, as Twitter conservatives say, “the future liberals want,” and Casey McQuiston is here to tell you it is glorious, indeed.
Perhaps the most deliciously fantastical element of the book is the blessed absence of a certain Donald John Trump. In this alternate reality, having won the presidency in 2016, Alex’s mom finds herself locked in a fierce reelection campaign with a Republican senator from Utah. (It should go without saying that President Claremont — thoughtful, empathetic, principled — is a Democrat.) McQuiston also indulges in a host of other political fantasies: here, scandals actually have an impact. Texas is in play. And GOP leaders are just conventionally loathsome rather than psycopathic. Hanging behind the story is the depressing awareness that all this is fiction — that the likes of Bill Barr can walk roughshod over democracy, and suffer absolutely no consequences — but the delightful force of the story mostly keeps these dark clouds at bay. On the page, at least, good really can triumph over evil.
Of course, the novel’s political landscape is background to a more urgent consideration: the development of Alex and Henry’s relationship. As things heat up between the two young men, it becomes more and more important for them to keep their relationship a secret. President Claremont is running a tight reelection campaign, and doesn’t need the distraction of an “international relations” scandal (much as she supports her son). For Henry’s part, Buckingham Palace has made it clear he’s to keep up appearances as a red-blooded heterosexual; one queen in the Royal Family is more than enough, thank you very much.
Henry and Alex’s relationship eventually leaks into public view, and the two men must come to terms with the fallout. Are they ready to claim their lives as their own? Or will they continue putting on a show, conducting their romance behind closed, armored doors?
In situating Alex and Henry’s coming-out on a global stage, McQuiston has performed a cunning bit of literary activism. The political trappings of the story both heighten and deflate the stakes of being gay or bisexual: there’s not much room for shame or agonizing interfamilial reckoning when political operatives are running around shouting things like, “It’s about to be gay DEFCON five in this administration.” Here, hiding from reporters and faking straight relationships for the gossip columns serves as an entertaining exaggeration of life in the closet — and in this exaggeration, McQuiston saps the coming-out process of its oppressive power. According to her vision, coming out is hard, but it’s also kind of a blast — just one dramatic escapade in a book full of them.
Not that a casual reader would get any of this from the novel; Red, White & Royal Blue has no ambition to be a work of serious fiction. The writing, though mostly unobtrusive, can be blunt and overly emphatic. Characters are always calling things “stupid” as an expression of their belligerent affection: “He’s in stupid, unbearable love”; “he likes the way that one stupid vowel curls in his accent.” At one point, Alex grabs Henry “by the stupid collar of his stupid polo and kisses his stupid mouth.”
And although the sex is fun, it also falls into cliché. An encounter in a Wimbledon storage closet — which McQuiston describes as “hot,” “obscene,” and, yes, “stupid” — is so good that “Alex might die” if it ever stops. The initial rivalry between Henry and Alex is much too overdone, and the “happily ever after” promise of the finale feels unearned.
And yet: Who the hell cares? Not me, that’s for sure. Indeed, part of the book’s pleasure is in its unabashed willingness to be conventional — all while taking the decidedly unconventional tack of casting two men as the central romantic leads. How satisfying it is to watch McQuiston broaden the archetypes available to gay and bisexual men: in her world, we can be as fun and frivolous and flighty as, say, Bridget Jones or Carrie Bradshaw or even Elizabeth Bennet. We, too, can have heartbreaks, crushes, and ridiculous confrontations in the rain; and if, in Red, White & Royal Blue, there’s something silly and calorie-free about that performance, well then, so be it: equality means having access to every type of narrative, from the weighty to the frivolous.
For me, it was this unspoken insistence that made Red, White & Royal Blue such a rush — and part of what made me wish the book had been available to me when I was younger. Back then, I was hungry for a fun, readable book that spoke to the clamorous wondering in my gut; a book that allowed coming out to be difficult but not life-ending; a book that showed it was possible for two young men to be in a relationship that was as real and fun and complicated as any of the straight romances I encountered at the library or the multiplex. Red, White & Royal Blue speaks to this hunger. It welcomes queer people into the charming clichés of romantic comedy.
After high school, I made my way back to books. By then I’d grown up enough to appreciate the works of writers like Joan Didion and William Styron — writers who altered me in the way Roald Dahl and J. K. Rowling had once altered me. I started rebuilding my library, carting it from one New York City apartment to the next, in white milk crates and cardboard UPS boxes. I lay on my carpet and flipped through memoirs, novels, and essay collections, feeling older, but also continuous with that younger self in some primal, essential way. I was back.
And yet, how I wish I’d had a few books to walk me from The Boxcar Children to Anna Karenina. How I wish there had been no intermission, no break from that special, unnamable thing the best books do to us.
Lucky for kids today, there doesn’t have to be.
Harrison Hill’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, The Rumpus, Gay Magazine, and American Theatre Magazine. He received his MFA from Columbia University, where he taught undergraduate writing.