If you feel like the world is crumbling around you, take shelter in Casey McQuiston's exuberant debut novel. In an interview with Refinery29, McQuiston called Red, White & Royal Blue “a quarter turn toward hope.” We call it nothing short of fantastic.
In this escapist romantic comedy, the Prince of Wales and the only son of the United States’ first woman president fall into each other’s arms at a party, then fall into a deeply passionate affair. Both in their early 20s, Prince Henry and Alex Claremont-Díaz are the golden boys of their respective countries. Together, they'd be a power couple unlike the world has ever seen — but is the world ready for them? (The answer is yes: Red White, & Royal Blue has a fandom army mobilizing on Goodreads and was already picked up for a movie deal).
Red, White & Royal Blue is a bold twist on the commoner-royal romance, which has been a staple in pop culture from Hans Christian Anderson's "Cinderella" to the recent American fable of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. McQuiston, who worked as a journalist prior to becoming a novelist, has always been a fan of those stories. In fact, she was reading the popular Will-and-Kate-esque romance The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan when she started writing Red, White & Royal Blue.
But the royal romance McQuiston really wanted to read didn't exist yet. She had to write it herself.
"Those are wonderful stories, and I love those stories, always have. I don’t mean to shit talk them," McQuiston said. "They all try to do something different to subvert the Prince Charming trope, but no one was doing what was, to me, as a queer person, the obvious subversion: What if he was gay? What if he’s not going to produce 500 heirs?"
In September 2018, the British royal family had its first same-sex wedding— Lord Ivar Mountbatten, a 55-year-old distant cousin of the queen, married his partner. McQuiston imagines what might happen if a young man positioned closer to the throne were a gay man, and wanted to live openly as one.
"I was fascinated by a Prince Charming who uses his bland persona to hide how complex and dark and more than that he is," McQuiston said.
To make the novel's premise work, McQuiston capitalizes on inherent mysteriousness of the royal family. For all we read about them in tabloids, we don't know them — just like Alex doesn't know Henry. For most of his life, the bold and politically minded Alex had been put off by Henry's cool exterior. Henry's entire get-up screamed privilege and colonialism and no fun at all.
It takes a PR disaster for Alex to discover the real Henry, bursting with literary references and caustic wit. During a confrontation with Henry at a royal wedding, Alex knocks down the couple's cake. Alex's mother, Ellen, is running for re-election and can't handle any bad press. So, Alex gets shipped to England for a weekend to be photographed with Henry and mark the bromance of the century.
Until many long nights talking on the phone with Henry stirred romantic feelings for a man, Alex had only dated woman. As Henry grapples with the implications of his gay sexuality in a restrictive environment, Alex confronts his bisexuality.
"They all try to do something different to subvert the Prince Charming trope, but no one was doing what was, to me, as a queer person, the obvious subversion: What if he was gay? What if he’s not going to produce 500 heirs?"
Bisexual representation was especially important for McQuiston. "I'm bisexual. I rarely have gotten to see good representation of that. So I was like, well fuck it, I'll write it," she said.
In a world in which more and more young people identify as queer, a gay royal romance is a near irresistible thought experiment. A week before Red, White & Royal Blue's release, Rachel Hawkin's sweet YA novel Her Royal Highness envisioned an American girl (Texas-born, like Alex) falling in love with a Scottish princess.
But McQuiston always knew Red, White & Royal Blue had to focus on two men. "I knew I wanted the plot to be about a queer power couple and the way that the world reacts to them. Those things play out differently if they’re two women," McQuiston said. "If it were the princess and the first daughter, the minute it broke, there would be 50 porn parodies within 25 minutes."
Then, McQuiston remembered just how dreamy Alex and Henry are, and amended her answer. "Actually, I’m sure there’d be porn varieties of this, too. But it's a different kind of ramifications for the relationship," she said.
It's almost painful to leave the 400-page cocoon that is Red, White & Royal Blue. With the book's conclusion, we're popped back into the real world, which sees a United States and Great Britain in significant political upheaval — not united by a triumphant gay romance.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, there's a growing movement to bring the (far superior) world of Red, White and Royal Blue into this one. McQuiston developed "Claremont For America 2020" T-shirts, a nod to the character Ellen Claremont's 2020 Democratic run.
"I've sold 100 shirts," McQuiston said, laughing. "I’m like, what is happening?"
Here's what's happening: Red, White & Royal Blue is making us take that quarter turn toward hope ourselves.