Casey McQuiston’s debut, Red, White and Royal Blue was released in May 2019 to instant acclaim. Considered the must-read book of the year, Red, White & Royal Blue was smothered in good reviews, and when I finally got my hands on it I was pleased to find it lived up to the hype.
The New Adult romance follows First Son of the United States, Alex Claremont-Diaz as he navigates life in the spotlight as the American equivalent to a young royal. In this lovely alternate reality, Trump was never sworn into office, and Alex’s mother is the president instead. But what most people don’t know about Alex is that his arch-nemesis just so happens to be Henry, Prince of Wales. When tabloids capture their rivalry in full force, the two men are forced into immediate damage control. Alex and Henry’s constructed public friendship soon develops into something a lot more real behind closed doors. What ensues is romantic-comedy gold; forbidden romance and the highest of stakes—the threat of derailing both a presidential campaign and an international alliance.
If the premise isn’t enough to entice you, there is a lot more to like about Red, White and Royal Blue. The 421-page novel is binge-worthy; one of those rare books that you can’t put down, and when you do, you’ll find yourself daydreaming about the next time you’ll have a chance to pick it up again. I found myself laughing out loud (the turkey scene, you’ll know what I mean when you read it), and even having to physically put the book down for a breather during intense scenes. It had all the qualities one could need: utterly indulgent, enough cheese to make a grilled sandwich with, and an effortless balance between drama and fluff.
As a protagonist, Alex is well-rounded, relatable and charming. He has noticeable flaws (for example, his complete ineptitude when it comes to self-discovery and love, his stubbornness and recklessness) but he’s lovable too, for his ability to take responsibility for his actions, his deep loyalty and his flare for justice. Best of all, he represents a refreshing take on bisexuality, someone who never fully recognised his attraction to men until the right person came along, defying the stereotype that someone has to ‘know’ from the very beginning to be considered a legitimate member of the LGBT community.
The Prince of Wales, Henry, is the yin to Alex’s yang. Despite what some might think, he’s not a Prince Harry knockoff, but a three-dimensional character who bears no resemblance to any existing Royal. He compliments Alex’s boisterous personality with his thoughtful and sweet one. They have believable chemistry, both as two people who seemingly hate one another, then as friends, and eventually as lovers.
McQuiston’s strong suit lies in the first half of the novel, namely the development of friendship and romance between Alex and Henry, and the build-up of tension between them. The second half, although engaging, lacked some of the momentum established in the first portion of the novel, and deviated from the focus to tell a more political storyline. This may not be a problem for some people, but American politics isn’t something I tend to seek out in my reading. McQuiston did manage to make their political angle digestible, though.
While most of the side characters were believable and very likeable, the villains felt one-dimensional, and their motives lacked depth. This may have been a deliberate ploy by McQuiston to highlight the fact that they were homophobically driven, but it didn’t work for me.
As an Australian reader, there were moments McQuiston pushed a very American centric narrative that I had to take with a grain of salt. I found it hard to imagine Alex, as the First Son, to be of equal public relevance as an English Prince. It meant that some events focusing on Alex’s international reputation, came across melodramatic, rather than holding the weight I know was intended. I wasn’t fully convinced that Alex’s fame was on par with a literal prince’s. But, considering the story’s overall fantastical romance, it wasn’t too hard to suspend disbelief.
I mentioned earlier that Red, White & Royal Blue is indulgent, and the array of explicit scenes are a great example of that. Smut is all up to personal preference, however, some of the scenes weren’t necessary to move the narrative forward. Regardless, I don’t mind that it was written in excess, because it was still enjoyable, and handled tastefully. McQuiston’s self-indulgence caused them to go a little ham at times, and sometimes moments of high tension and emotion exposed their tendency for overkill. The characters emotions were handed to the reader, not allowing much room for readers to come to conclusions on our own. That being said, I was mostly able to ride the highs and lows with the characters, and certainly felt the stakes in moments of pressure.
Although the focus of Red, White & Royal Blue is the two boys’ love affair, McQuiston manages to incorporate a number of other elements to keep the reader engaged, from likeable side characters to a complex political narrative. As an LGBT+ person themselves, McQuiston’s passion for representing their community shines through in every page. They present Alex and Henry’s closeting experience with as much nuance as would be experienced in real life while maintaining nuggets of pure joy for the readers.
Convincing chemistry can be hard to come by in LGBT+ stories, so the connection between Alex and Henry is all the more appreciated as an LGBT reader like myself. McQuiston absolutely nailed all aspects of the relationship, even down to the way they conversed over text and by email; these vignettes of digital interactions was a nice way to break up chunks of action and plot while quickly conveying the progressing relationship.
I would recommend Red, White & Royal Blue to LGBT+ readers, anyone who loves romance and people who have an interest in the Royal family or American politics. If you’re a fan of books like Simon Versus the Homosapien Agenda by Becki Albertali, Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory, or The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan then you’ll definitely like this one. This book can be enjoyed by all, whether they see themselves in the story or not.
Red, White & Royal Blue
By Casey McQuiston
421 pages. 2019.