Image Source: @Casey_McQuiston on Twitter
A reading of Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
(A book I read…often)
What if the President’s son fell in love with the Prince of England? What if the world found out? Or as Casey McQuiston asks on the back jacket of her debut novel, Red, White, and Royal Blue, “Can love save the world after all? Where do we find the courage, and the power, to be the people we are meant to be? And how can we learn to let our true colors shine through?”
McQuiston’s novel was the pegged as the breakout hit of the summer of 2019. The novel’s rom-com plot, representation of millennial life, and its re-imagining of the official families of two powerful nations made it a hit. Amazon Studios even bought the movie rights for the novel in April of 2019, a month before the book was released.
In this sweet and exciting romance, Alex Clairemont-Diaz, son of America’s first female President, and Prince Henry of a fictionalized English royal family start off as enemies. At the elder Prince of Wales’ royal wedding (Henry’s older brother), Alex and Henry get in a fight that knocks down the wedding cake and their “feud” is splashed across news outlets and tabloids. To do damage control, the boys are forced to embark on a press tour to convince the public they are best friends, which ends up in them becoming way more. As the story unfolds, we meet a whole cast of hilarious and interesting characters: Alex’s sister June, his best friend Nora, secret service agents, press teams, aristocracy, political rivals, even the Queen has a place in this tale. All come together to tell a story about sexuality, friendship, family, love, and politics.
If the plot sounds a bit stereotypically romcom, it’s meant to. McQuiston told Daniel Toray of Vanity Fair, ‘“I felt like what I was missing [in literature] was something packaged like all of the rom-coms that I loved growing up. And that was this shiny, colorful, 10 Things I Hate About You–type of experience, where it was frothy and trope-y, and it felt like a million things you’d read before but it felt new at the same time.”’ McQuiston’s writes a traditional romance, that is both funny and touching, while also reinventing parts of the genre. Sexuality and race are a large part of this novel. Alex is Mexican-American and bisexual, a realization he comes to in the novel, while Henry is gay, something he knows but hides. The novel doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations or themes. McQuiston integrates them into the RomCom genre to make her novel stand out as a story that takes the lives of its characters as seriously as it does their romance.
In this way, and many others, this novel is truly a story of its time. Red, White, and Royal Blue is a cacophony of millennial references. There are mentions of Parks and Rec, Stranger Things, other staples of pop culture. Twitter is mentioned, along with other social medias, as a way Alex and his family spread and receive news from the public. It is where he goes to see if his and Henry’s best friend tour is working and where he looks up people’s opinions about his mother, who is running for President again, and his father, who is also in politics.
These mediums don’t feel kitschy, they feel genuine, and the story could not exist without them. Alex and Henry converse through text messages and email a lot. Not only does this narrative device give the reader a break from both Alex’s headspace (it is told in 3rd person limited), these passages are often more honest than the characters can be in each other’s presence. We wouldn’t know the other side of the characters without McQuiston giving us the narrative in more than one medium. It is as if Alex and Henry feel more comfortable being sentimental when there is a screen between them, a feeling a lot of young people can relate to and something McQuiston obviously plays into.
Using pop-culture references into literature is the subject of a huge debate in writing circles. The question of, “Should one link their story so close to a certain time in society?” is on a lot of writer’s minds. What McQuiston does, and what I find to be the best use of references, is to use them not to date the book, but to make it sound more real. Alex, Henry, and all the other characters feel like real people because they are so ingrained in what is happening around them. The characters’ relationship to the world is similar to other young people’s and this is what really sells this story. While not many people can relate to a political or royal family, most can relate to being stressed and over worked, having a complicated judgmental family, deciding ones future, or even having so many eyes on you. The people in this book interact like people that the reader could know and not like timeless representations of youth, which is exactly the kind of fictionalizing that is needed right now.
McQuiston’s fictionalizing of the first families of America and Britain is another facet of the novel’s time. To McQuiston, a millennial herself who grew up both on RomComs and on the internet, I’m sure fan-fiction is just another genre of writing. (Or maybe I’m projecting my youth education scouring fanfiction websites here.) Fan-fiction is creating a story that lives inside of another real or fictionalized world. This novel, in some ways, feels like product of this genre. I don’t call this novel inspired by fan-fiction to devalue its narrative power, but to enhance its connection to its cultural moment. (I won’t mention them by name, because hopefully we all know, but there are other very popular novels thats started out on fanfiction websites.)
McQuiston reimagines America and creates a new, more open world us readers want to slip into and inhabit. McQuiston writes a story that places real young people, real people of color, real LGBTQ people into the most powerful houses in America and Britain — before this itself was a reality and then a memory in the marriage of Megan and Harry. McQuiston undermines our imaginations of the White House and Royalty as having to be one thing – straight, white, proper, etc. – and invites us all to believe that this story could be reality, could stick, one day at least. (You can even find fanfictions, in all artistic genres, of this novel. One of my favorites being this art piece from an instagram artist named @shyhaus: link)
In a now famous line from the book, Alex writes to Henry in an email, “Thinking about history makes me wonder how I’ll fit into it one day, I guess. And you too […] History, huh? Bet we could make some” (241). Which is exactly what McQuiston aims to do: (re)make (fictional) history. And I think what we as readers, or creators, or even people living in the modern world can do. Or at least try to do, in real life or in fiction.