By Allie Skalnik
I first read Red, White & Royal Blue only days after its release, amid a flurry of glowing reviews that proclaimed it “The Next Big Thing.” I find I very much agree, and today I consider it among the best books that I read in 2019.
However, I didn’t adore this book upon first read. I liked it well enough, but I was thrown for a loop by its optimism, and in my phase of wanting everything to be very serious, I ignored the great service this book does for YA literature. Its hopefulness does not diminish its meaning, as I first thought. Rather, it exemplifies a kind of storytelling I’ve always adored. Able to be complex and thoughtful without losing its optimism, this book reads like a modern-day fairy tale.
Nora, June, Alex, Henry, and Pez make for delightful guides through Casey McQuiston’s world. It explores a world with a different outcome to the 2016 election. Ellen Claremont is a fierce and ruthless woman who took the country by storm when she announced her candidacy and subsequently became elected president. Her son, Alex Claremont-Diaz and daughter, June Claremont-Diaz grew up in the public light, making campaign flyers and attending rallies. She’s a president neither Casey McQuiston’s world nor our own world has seen before. Not only is she a woman, she’s a divorced (and then remarried) woman with a biracial family. June and Alex, along with Nora (the granddaughter of the Vice President) are celebrities in their own right, dubbed the White House Trio by the press. June is a fashion icon and aspiring journalist, Alex is a media (and self) proclaimed heartthrob who has dreams of being elected to Congress by 30, and Nora is a wickedly smart hacker whose C3PO-esque risk assessments drive Alex up the wall—Alex is a little bit drunk on his own power, who needs someone to take his ego down a notch, and that someone comes in the form of none other than Prince Henry of Wales. Naturally, they fall in love.
The most common criticisms of this book that I’ve seen are:
- It’s unrealistic
- The plot was predictable
- Henry was flat and Alex was irritating
- McQuiston was pandering to a young audience and political correctness (and implicit in this, the notion that the book is either silly or ‘too political’)
I must concede that this book is a bit unrealistic. Of course, I would argue that’s exactly the point. We don’t live in McQuiston’s reality. She created an alternate result of the 2016 election, and to do this without representing the immense difference in political climate that would have to be present for this to happen, would be foolish. It’s not our world. It’s what our world could be, maybe, someday.
This is a book that’s cliché in all the right ways. I’m a big believer that there are clichés and tropes for a reason. It’s quite possible to use them well, and that’s exactly what McQuiston does. The enemies-to-lovers trope would absolutely be irritating in many other books, but what makes it work for McQuiston is the knowledge we have as readers (and Alex would have if he were honest with himself) that his ‘hatred’ of Henry is flimsy at best. Alex accepting that he’s a little obsessed with Henry is important in his growth as a character from someone who, as June says (and I’ll paraphrase), “has a fire under him for no good reason” to someone who clearly basks in the moments he gets to spend with the people he loves, who accepts that perhaps it would be okay to shift his plans a bit, so that he can live his life a little more, rather than always be rushing into the next thing. I find that clichés work when the characters understand what’s happening. Alex understands that the enemies-to-lovers trope is ridiculous. He realizes that his life is insane and that the mural is something out of a fairy tale. And because he’s aware of this, McQuiston is able to make clichés and tropes her own.
Plot doesn’t need to be surprising to be powerful. Take The Empire Strikes Back. “I am your father.” It’s one of the most well-known twists in cinema, but re-watching that scene doesn’t diminish its significance just because I know what’s going to happen. And to take it a step further, I’ve always known that’s what was going to happen, long before I saw the movie for the first time, but the story still stands on its own. If plot always had to be surprising, I wouldn’t enjoy rereading books so much. Scholars wouldn’t pour over Hamlet a million times. Stories are more than just a collection of scenes. They’re more than just plot and setting and characters. I would argue part of what sets a story apart from plot is its connection with readers. My connection to stories adds a multitude of things: my experiences and thoughts and memories and values all enhance the story and make it more than just plot.
If you believe the characters in this book are flat, we must have been reading different books. It’s simply not true. I hope there’s no doubt in anyone’s minds that Alex and Nora are interesting characters. With their snarky wit and self-destructive habits, their glamorous escapades dusted with glitter (literally) are worthy of lens flares. They prance and soak up the spotlight, enjoying their celebrity with middle fingers up to the world. These two need the calm and sure presence of June and Henry. (I’m honestly at a loss as to where Pez fits in there. We don’t get to spend much time with him, but his chaoticness rivals Nora, and it’s wonderful.) That being said, I think it’s obvious that Henry and June were both created by McQuiston for the same purpose: to balance out Alex. Henry and June are not the same character, of course, but I find it troubling that when June is maternal it’s seen as–just that. Maternal. Yet when Henry does the exact same, he’s a bore. Excuse me, this is the same hopeless romantic of a man who considers Return of the Jedi the greatest Star Wars movie. Since when is it boring to be caring and protective? Henry is not boring. He’s a character who doesn’t need to be very loud to be interesting.
The notion that Alex is irritating astounds me. Or perhaps I completely understand. Teenagers, by and large, are immensely irritating. But that doesn’t mean we should stop writing books about teenagers. Because every single one of us have to deal with teenagers in our lives (in my case, dealing with myself), it’s important that this is represented in literature. It’s not something we can simply ignore. It’s a fact of our reality that teenagers, and even adults sometimes, can be blind and self-centered and angsty, but that doesn’t mean we suddenly stop listening to them. So why should we do the same for our characters? Alex is a great representation of adolescents. In addition to making mistakes and being wrong and angsting far too much, he’s trying, he cares, and he’s getting better. I think that’s all we can ask for.
To answer the question of whether McQuiston tried too hard to be politically correct or panders to a young audience, I must defend two points: this book is neither silly, nor is it ‘too political’.
There is a difference between silly and optimistic, and while I agree that there’s a fair bit of overlap, I’ve always been of the belief that I’m content to be considered silly by being optimistic if it means making things happen. Optimism is fine as long as it’s neither blind nor aimless. That’s where it can be considered foolish. But optimism can be used to fuel us forward and cultivate a better future. I believe that’s exactly what this book achieves. No one reading this book was under the impression that things would play out the same way in our own world. I understood when Henry’s mother stood up to the Queen that the Monarchy doesn’t work like that. So as long as readers remain conscientious of this (and we should trust that they will), I don’t see any harm in being hopeful.
In terms of the book being ‘too political’, I can’t help but think that it’s this kind of thinking that has resulted in an ever more polarized country. Books are a dialogue between the reader and the author, and in shying away from political conversation, we only exacerbate divisions. Casey McQuistons’s book voices the thoughts of tens of thousands of Americans (as evidenced by the number of five-star reviews on Goodreads alone), and I think that dismissing these opinions by calling the book “too political” is missing out on a fantastic opportunity to have a very important conversation.
More than anything else, this book is optimistic. It’s no secret that I’m a massive West Wing fan, a show created by Aaron Sorkin that has been praised for its optimistic view of politics. It’s this optimism that allows for the show to be an escape for viewers when politics in the real world are significantly rockier. It depicts a world in which big problems really get solved, and that’s powerful, especially when paired with Sorkin’s signature rousing speeches and a spectacular cast. (Martin Sheen! Allison Janney! I can go on and on) However, for as much as I adore this show, I often find myself wishing Sorkin’s brand of optimism didn’t come in the form of a scholarly, white, straight, male from New Hampshire. I mean, seriously? Hasn’t this been done before? It’s hard to ignore that aside from Charlie Young, the president’s personal aide (who is wonderful, may I add), the recurring cast is entirely white. There are two or three women in there, and while their stories are important and most always told well, I always want more of them. Maybe something along the lines of a gay, biracial, occasional (often) idiot, who falls in love with the Crown Prince? (because that’s exactly the kind of lunacy I tolerate in YA literature) Yeah. I think so too. What Red, White & Royal Blue does better than The West Wing is its commitment to proving that we don’t have to look to the past for optimism. It continues to take us forward in our views of American heroes rather than root us more firmly in the past. Not to say that the past isn’t important, but I want to believe that America is producing new heroes every day. I think present-day idols are more powerful than ghosts.
Red, White & Royal Blue may be predictable and clichéd and perhaps a tad unrealistic, but I’m willing to sacrifice those things for a story that makes me feel genuinely, powerfully hopeful. A generation as hopeful as that will be a force to be reckoned with.
Image courtesy of Vogue.