Alex wouldn’t say he likes Henry, but he does enjoy the quick rhythm of their arguments they fall into. He knows he talks too much, hopeless at moderating his feelings, which he usually hides under ten layers of charm, but he ultimately doesn’t care what Henry thinks of him, so he doesn’t bother. Instead, he’s as weird and manic as he wants to be, and Henry jabs back in sharp flashes of startling wit.
So, when he’s bored or stressed or between coffee refills, he’ll check for a text bubble popping up.
As the iconic day approaches in the good ol’ USA, it seemed only appropriate to review Casey McQuiston’s newest novel: Red, White, and Royal Blue. While we celebrate our independence from England on the 4th of July, RWRB is about celebrating an slightly more intimate relationship between the two countries and the young sons of their respective leaders. Love, not war, as they say!
Red, White, and Royal Blue will put your emotions through the wringer and bring you back out on the other side as a fundamentally better human being. I’m usually not a fan of contemporary fiction, but this one hit me right in the heart. I loved it to bits. Truly, I just wanted to take Alex and Henry, smoosh their faces together, and tell them that they need to kiss right this minute and acknowledge that they truly are queer as a maypole and desperately, desperately in love with one another.
“You gonna ask him to dance, then?” . . .
“In his dreams.”
“Aw,” Nora says, “you’re blushing.”
“Listen,” Alex tells her, “royal weddings are trash, the princes who have royal weddings are trash, the imperialism that allows princes to exist at all is trash. It’s trash turtles all the way down.”
McQuiston nails so many of the themes I’ve seen my own LGBTQ+ friends struggle with. For example: “do I love him, or do I want to be him?” is a feeling that I haven’t often seen represented in novels. I was so emotional watching Alex come to terms with his feelings for Henry, slowly moving from envy, jealousy, and admiration (concealed behind frustration), all the way around to acknowledging that he is bisexual and coming out to his friends and family.
However, Alex and Henry have an added layer of complication when it comes to coming out. Alex is the half-Mexican son of the president of the United States. Hi mom, Emma, is currently campaigning for reelection, and coming out could be quite the scandal… particularly when his lover is the Prince of Wales. Henry faces a conservative family that has been torn apart by his father’s death, who are certainly not prepared to accept a gay son.
“Sugar, I cannot express to you how much the press does not give a fuck about who started what,” Ellen says. “As your mother, I can appreciate that maybe this isn’t your fault, but as the president, all I want to do is have the CIA fake your death and ride the dead-kid sympathy into a second term.” *
*Disclaimer: Ellen is great and supportive overall.
Despite these challenges, RWRB at heart is full of love and hope. Alex’s family and how they accept and support him simply broke my heart. Tears were shed. Several of them. Maybe even many of them. I am a huge softie, and by god this book got to me. Alex and Henry are hurt to the core, but watching them support one another and be supported by those closest to them is so incredibly heartwarming. I felt so much optimism by the end that my heart could simply burst from it.
The chemistry and banter adds so much to all of the themes mentioned above. The entire cast of characters is fantastic; every paragraph is witty, clever, and extremely polished. The dialogue had me laughing aloud. June, Nora, and Henry’s best friend, Pez, add so much with all of their commentary and input. Each one is a fully realized character with their own wants and focuses, which are continuously implied and expanded on as the book proceeds. Each are pulled in multiple directions as they attempt to hold on to their own personhood and identity in the midst of the political milieu.
“Oh, like I thought we were already there with you being bi and everything,” she says. “Sorry, are we not? Did I skip ahead again? My bad. Hello, would you like to come out to me? I’m listening. Hi.”
“I don’t know!” he half yells, miserably. “Am I? Do you think I’m bi?”
“I can’t tell you that, Alex!” she says. “That’s the whole point!”
“Shit,” he says, dropping his head back on the cushions. “I need someone to just tell me. How did you know you were?”
“I don’t know, man. I was in my junior year of high school. I touched a boob. It wasn’t very profound. Nobody’s gonna write an Off-Broadway play about it.”
Similarly, all the parents in this book are amazing. It’s so incredibly refreshing, positive, and hopeful to have parents represented who genuinely care and take an interest in their kids’ wellbeing. So often in literature, parents are dead or uncaring. This is not the case in RWRB. Ellen, Alex’s mom, creates a sex ed PowerPoint to help Alex through his crisis, and if that’s not amazing I simply don’t know what is. Catharine, Henry’s mom, takes some time to come into her own, but when she does…. I was positively cheering her on.
Although I have not personally gone through a crisis of sexuality along these lines, I genuinely resonated with the fundamental theme of this book: it’s okay to be who you are, and it’s okay to present that to the world. Growing up, I was often shamed in small ways for my interests. It was hard for me to talk about the books I liked, the media I consumed, or to release any little piece of myself. This was partially due to the small types of shame, partially due to having little in common with family and peers, and partially due to a bad home situation where I had to protect myself by withdrawing and hiding from those around me. Being able to see a good family represented in books, where the support that I never received is present, is cathartic and makes me hope that more people will experience that compared to the childhood I ended up stuck with. To a young person struggling with their sexuality, I can only imagine how meaningful seeing this representation might be. It matters a lot being able to see yourself in books, and this is such a genuine and beautiful portrayal that I’m certain it would have a profound and lasting impact to individuals in such a situation.