Red, White & Royal Blue
Reviewing a book with this much hype and buzz pre-release almost makes me want to… not. There are already legions of fans to gush about how amazing Red, White, & Royal Blue is, and dissenting from that opinion always seems a little uncomfortable, but I must. While McQuiston’s début has a lot of charm going for it, and was a pleasure to read at times, I can’t say it’s a perfect book.
The story takes place in what is essentially an alternate universe where the 2016 election was won by a Texas democrat named Ellen Claremont, and across the pond an entirely different royal family is ruling England (but Brexit is still a thing). In this more dayglow world, Claremont’s son Alex Claremont-Diaz is an up-and-comer in D.C. who has made a name for himself as part of his mom’s political team. Unfortunately, he has a bad run in with His Royal Highness, Prince Henry of Wales (yes, not Harry) at a royal wedding and now needs to do damage control for the sake of US/UK international relations.
The idea is that they’ll pretend to be friends, show up to some events together, get photographed, and it will smooth over any ruffles. Red, White, & Royal Blue advertises itself as an enemies-to-lovers romance, but really the flares of annoyance between Alex and Henry burn out fast, and soon they’re texting late at night and getting to know each other as people, not just political figureheads.
To be honest, the book almost lost me in the setup. I was incredibly excited for it based on the premise, but it’s a slow starter. If you look at the page count, maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise because it’s pretty long for a romantic comedy. Alex and Henry spend ages on opposite sides of the Atlantic, with only tiny interactions, and I was impatient for the romance to start. At the same time, I had to adjust some to the voice. I don’t think I’d be wrong to say this book is very ‘millennial’. I’m a fellow millennial, but dear God. The humor, cultural references, and general style of dialogue between Alex, his sister June, and friend Nora is like someone was screaming ‘We’re youths!!!’ and the humor was at times funny and at others just plain forced. It gave the story a weird feel of both existing exactly in our current time, and also being eerily so not our current political climate (politics plays a large part in the story) that I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. I do wonder if the whole book will feel terribly dated in a very short time.
Now, once the romance sparked, it was lovely. Alex and Henry are both adorable, well-rounded characters that I loved. Really, the whole cast of the book is fantastic. Alex comes off as someone young and probably reckless who isn’t sure where he wants to be, but he’s very rooted to the people in his life. Henry is almost the opposite in that he’s cautious and thinks his fate is predetermined by birth, but longs for relationships with anyone who can deeply understand him. The boys falling for each other is stellar, and I’d recommend the book to anyone just for their relationship. It felt realistically like young love – all uncertainty and newness and excitement. If you extracted the romance alone from the story, it would’ve been an A+, hands down.
My only caveat to that is a personal one, in that so much of their relationship takes place via text message and email and I have a pet peeve about that. I just don’t enjoy reading long exchanges in an epistolary format, and there’s a lot of that here (including a podcast). Also, their emails were… a lot to take. If there are twenty-something guys that write evocative, maudlin emails with quotes from historical figures, I’ve never met one.
Besides that, one of the biggest issues I had was that the pacing – and the timeline of the book – is very odd. There are no real transitions from scene to scene, so you’d be in D.C. with Alex thinking about something, then suddenly he’s sitting beside Henry. How did we get here? When is this? I wondered if this was partially due to the formatting of the ARC I had, but I think a lot was the writing style and how McQuiston kind of meanders from thought to thought at times. It was a challenge to understand the timeline and when characters changed location, which pulled me out of the story.
Obviously, scores of readers have already enjoyed Red, White, & Royal Blue, and plenty more will as well. I found myself both completely engrossed and wanting to savor parts, as well as skimming others. I don’t think my reservations are enough that I would tell anyone not to read it, because most people will fall into the camp of enjoying it despite its flaws. And really, I think Alex and Henry are pretty swoon-worthy, and I look forward to the movie version of them when it inevitably gets made. If I sound overly critical, it’s because I think this book could have been perfect if not for the drawbacks – the forced humor, the undiscernible time line and location shifts and the epistolary nature of much of the romance. There’s so much to love about the concept of a queer, international royal romance that has humor and a New Adult voice, that I wish so much I hadn’t found a single issue. Sadly, I think Red, White & Royal Blue just had too much going on, and that kept it from reaching DIK status.