JOINT REVIEW: Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
Sirius and I both read accolades for Casey McQuiston’s debut, Red, White and Royal Blue, an m/m New Adult romance. We decided to review it together. – Janine
What happens when America’s First Son falls in love with the Prince of Wales?
When his mother became President, Alex Claremont-Diaz was promptly cast as the American equivalent of a young royal. Handsome, charismatic, genius—his image is pure millennial-marketing gold for the White House. There’s only one problem: Alex has a beef with the actual prince, Henry, across the pond. And when the tabloids get hold of a photo involving an Alex-Henry altercation, U.S./British relations take a turn for the worse.
Heads of family, state, and other handlers devise a plan for damage control: staging a truce between the two rivals. What at first begins as a fake, Instragramable friendship grows deeper, and more dangerous, than either Alex or Henry could have imagined. Soon Alex finds himself hurtling into a secret romance with a surprisingly unstuffy Henry that could derail the campaign and upend two nations and begs the question: 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? Casey McQuiston’s Red, White & Royal Blue proves: true love isn’t always diplomatic.
Janine: I have to start by confessing that I did not finish this book—it was so frustrating that I reached 42%, which translates to around 180 pages, and then quit. So I can only speak to the section I read, but that was substantial enough that I can make some judgements.
My first question to you is what did you think of the setup and introduction of the conflict?
I felt the setup was engaging at first. Though the story was predictable, at first the impossibility of it all—Alex’s fear for his family’s approval ratings in a campaign year, Henry’s confinement to the life expected of a royal—gave the conflict a lot of potential. I liked both of the guys and wanted them to find a way to be together. But pretty quickly, the lack of depth or nuance weakened it.
Sirius: I agree that conflict had a lot of potential, but for me that potential evaporated pretty quickly. I am very often eager to try the stories which have the vibe of “from enemies to lovers” trope, and this book had a lot of early reviews which sang it accolades, so I said why not. Almost from the very beginning Alex’s age that was announced on page (21) for me did not compute with the way he talked and acted. I would peg him at around fifteen – sixteen tops and that was not a good thing for me.
Janine: Yes, I agree that Alex read much younger than twenty-one. I kept checking and rechecking his age in the beginning because I was thinking of him as eighteen at most!
Sirius: Very early in the story first family goes to Royal wedding. What did you think of what happened between Alex and Henry during the wedding? Did it work for you?
Janine: No. Almost from the beginning, I had problems with the way the first family, and even more so, the royal family, were portrayed, which I’ll get to in more detail later. And the scene where a drunken Alex grabs Henry during an argument and they crash into the wedding cake was pretty absurd, if I think of how likely something like that is to happen. But I strongly believe, as our reviewer Jia used to say, that “Every novel gets one gimme.” I tend to suspend disbelief about the premise of a book and see where that takes me. So I rolled my eyes a bit but decided to continue on and see what happened next.
What did you think of it, Sirius? And also, what did you think of our main characters?
Sirius: Yes I had a lot of problems with how First Family and Royal Family were portrayed. And yes I rolled my eyes and accepted the ridiculousness at the wedding. However when I say accepted I also mean that to me this scene set up a certain tone for the book. I thought that it will be an over the top romp where anything is a fair game because anything can happen. What followed though was so incredibly jarring for me. I felt as if the story could not make up its mind as to what it wants to be and that cohesive narrative just didn’t happen. I was jerked up out of the story just so many times.
I felt like the author really wanted me to like Alex and Henry, but the things she was telling me just didn’t translate into how they behaved on the page especially Alex.
When story told me that Alex wanted to go into politics because he really cared about people, I felt like zero evidence was provided to support that. Yes I saw he cared about June and Nora and of course about himself. Anybody else? Nope.
I had nothing against Henry although some of his comments about monarchy just felt so very clueless.
Janine: The best word I can use to describe Henry and Alex is sweet. Too sugary sweet. Alex is a little clueless about his sexuality at first, hiding the truth of his bisexuality from himself, but he catches on pretty quickly. His confusion over it and his ultimate embracing of it are endearing. Henry is savvier on that score, but his life, lived half in public and half in a carefully-protected fishbowl, gives him a different kind of cluelessness which is equally lovable since he is well-meaning.
But despite the obstacles they faced, the only emotions Alex and Henry seemed to feel, once Alex’s initial annoyance with Henry passed (and this happens pretty quickly), was the euphoria of sex and love. I’m all for that, but I wanted a bit more plot development and a *lot* more character development.
Instead, Alex and Henry seem to exist in a bubble where no complex emotion can interfere with the reader’s joy in their affair. Henry does suffer some sadness over his father’s death and worry for his sister and mother, but even these feelings seem to be in the story mainly to show us that Henry opens up to Alex because he (Henry) is so adorable as well as such a hottie, and aren’t these guys cute together? It felt objectifying of Henry.
And yes, their political views were underdeveloped as well.
Sirius: The story takes place in deeply political settings. Did you think it was successful in dealing with international and US politics ?
Janine: In a word, no. I was willing to buy that crashing into the cake with a royal heir might be offensive to the British, but not beyond that. I didn’t think it would start an international incident much less that a fake friendship would be employed as a PR strategy. That read like a plot contrivance to me.
This is also a good lead in to how I felt about their families–I thought the portrayal of the royal family was unconvincing. For all that Henry and his siblings, Bea and Philip, share their first names with members of the real royal family, they bear little resemblance to real royals. For example, this monarchy seems to have become more conservative and uptight within the last generation. Henry’s mother married a movie star, probably in the eighties or nineties, while Henry’s brother enters his own marriage not for love, but because the bride is “a perfectly respectable daughter of nobility.”
Unless I forgot something, it’s never explained why Henry is in “the spare” in the line of succession when it’s his mother and not his father who is the queen’s offspring. Does his mother have no male siblings? And if so, how was she allowed to marry a movie star and be as rebellious as she was, when her daughter isn’t even permitted to take guitar lessons?
Similarly, I had difficulty buying some of the dynamics in Alex’s family. Did *both* his parents have to be successful politicians? It isn’t enough that his mother is the president, his father has to be a senator too? On top of that Alex is heavily involved in his mother’s campaign for reelection behind the scenes as well as in public appearances, though he’s only twenty-one years old.
Sirius: I agree with everything you wrote, although I think you are giving this book way too much credit in explaining the line of succession in this universe. Yes, this monarchy seems to become more conservative.
I am not the biggest follower and defender of the royals to put it mildly, but didn’t two royal guys get married last year? Granted, it was not shown on American TV or anything like that and it does not mean that monarchy suddenly become super liberal institution but surely that meant that there is change happening and probably Queen was involved in that too? I rolled my eyes at Queen and “deviant behaviors” comment. Somehow I doubt that even if she would deeply object to her grandson coming out publicly that comment like that would have ever left her mouth, but hey what do I know.
Yes I didn’t buy those dynamics in Alex’s family, but once again I just didn’t buy the super genius Alex. He can manipulate and read people? He can make Senators do whatever he wants? Show me that he is exceptionally gifted in politics and otherwise, don’t just tell me.
And I just had issues with wish fulfillment aspect of this book in general. I am all for reading a book where US has a different president, trust me, but the way it was done in this story was so very over the top for me.
Janine: Yes! Agreed on everything, including Alex. And on the topic of the queen, how much more interesting would it be if Henry’s grandmother warned him against a same-sex relationship not solely because she was homophobic, controlling and afraid of bad publicity for the monarchy, but also because she had lived through the trauma of a public scandal in her youth and feared that Henry, whom she loved, would be hurt by a similar experience? The book is never willing to go anywhere as thorny or interesting as this.
The wish fulfillment aspect *was* way over the top. It wasn’t just the president, either, though there was that. So many of the people in the US government were from minority groups that are underrepresented in reality. Did we see a single white guy in the whole American power structure besides the bad guy who ran for president against Alex’s mother?
On another, but related question, did you feel the White House setting was utilized to its full potential? For me, the White House setting had all the potential to be fascinating, but the author didn’t seem truly interested in the inner workings of an actual White House. We don’t see policies discussed at the family’s dinner table, or Alex’s mother grapple with how to serve the entire country to the best of her abilities. Messy political dilemmas don’t come up much in the section I read.
Sirius: HA! No I don’t think we saw a single white guy except Richards you are absolutely right. No, I didn’t think White House setting was utilized to his full potential. On one hand it was supposed to be this fairy tale like house/building where mysterious things happen (“Don’t get caught” comment in the beginning), on another the book drops names of the previous presidential kids and presidents and attempts (but clearly does not follow up) to comment on some serious stuff and it was just all so jarring to me, sorry to repeat myself.
I know it was not specifically about White House setting, but if there was a messy political dilemma, last part of the book was it for me. Where it went? Nowhere – the dilemma part I mean, all it led to is for Harry and Alex to get their happy ending. I could not wait to finish this book.
Janine: You make me glad I didn’t read the second half. You’re a trooper for finishing!
Sirius: Obviously I don’t think you missed much – I mean new things definitely happened but it only became more annoying for me to finish.
Janine: What did you think about the secondary characters and the characterization generally? I found all the side characters simplistic, either wholly good if they root for Alex and Henry (who is himself nothing more interesting than a dreamboat / object of love), or wholly bad if they don’t. Additionally, June, Alex’s twin sister, and Nora, their friend who was also the VP’s daughter, were so similar that for the first 10% or 15% of the book, I kept getting confused between them and had to keep reminding myself that June was the twin and Nora the friend / daughter of the Vice President.
Sirius: I feel like secondary characters existed only to prop the love story either in the good or bad way yes. Why was June in the White House in the first place? She felt a need to support a brother who is supposed to graduate in a year? Did he need a nanny at that age? I am being sarcastic but the main reason why I ask is because the moment comes up where it made clear that June is not really interested in politics journalism is her thing and she is only here for her family. And this is a perfect example how backstories given to the secondary characters are ignored in favor of supporting main plot. She is unhappy? Oh why don’t you write all campaign speeches June and she seemed quite happy.
Why was Nora in White House so often? Isn’t she in MIT? Shouldn’t she be there?
I can’t find much positive about this book.
Janine: Me neither, but I wanted to touch on one positive thing. There’s a lot of diversity; Alex and Nora are bisexual, Henry is gay, as is Rafael Luna, a senator from Colorado Alex campaigned for, and Amy, one of the secret service agents on Alex’s detail, is married to a woman. Alex and June are of mixed race; their dad, Senator Oscar Diaz (incidentally, this is also the name of a real-life boxer who made some news in the 2000s) is Mexican-American and Senator Luna is Latino. Henry’s friend Pez (short for Percy Okonjo) is from Nigeria, so it’s very possible he’s black, though I don’t recall this being stated outright.
On the negative side, the book barely acknowledges the enormous degree of privilege the heroes have, Henry as an heir presumptive to the British monarchy and Alex as a member of America’s first family.
With regard to romantic and sexual tension, between the big obstacles and Alex’s annoyance with Henry, I was shipping these guys for the first 20% of the book. I think this book was only about the shipping, though, and that was the problem.
As for the sex, it got boring fast. In the section I read *all* the sex they had was oral. I’m all for oral sex, but eventually it started to seem like a weird fetish. Was there no other sexual activity these men were interested in? Not only was it dull and repetitive, for two horny guys in their early twenties, it didn’t ring true to me.
The writing itself was bad, too. The 42% I read was narrated in third person present tense from Alex’s POV. This took a little while to get used to, but I was able to do so. The pacing felt off, especially in the middle section. Gradually I started losing patience with almost everything about the book. The novel was underwritten as well. There weren’t any vivid descriptions or startling metaphors, no imagery or recurring motifs. The authorial voice was strong, even if I didn’t like it. I think voice and feels are the main things that account for the raves this book is getting.
Sirius: I am going to give it a D and be done.
Your grade is DNF Janine?
Janine: Yes. I can’t speak to whether there is a message or theme to this book, because I didn’t get far enough to see one. I can’t say that this book made me think about anything except bad writing. In terms of feels, in the first 20% I laughed occasionally and wanted to see Alex and Henry get together. But after they did, all I felt was annoyance.
This is a book that starts out sweet and sexy—if the reader can overlook glaring plot holes, contrivances and inaccuracies –but somewhere around 25% the fluff started to bore me. And there was no substance at all to Red, White and Royal Blue. It was all fluff.