In many ways, Alex Claremont-Diaz is a fairly typical Georgetown University student: politically engaged, overachieving, convinced he will be a senator one day and prone to poor decision-making when intoxicated. Unfortunately for him, the latter quality manifests itself in the form of an altercation with Prince Henry of England and the destruction of a $75,000 cake at the British royal wedding of the prince’s brother — because unlike most Georgetown students, Alex is the son of the U.S. president.
Casey McQuiston’s debut novel, “Red, White & Royal Blue,” is a rom-com for the internet age, complete with spectacularly formed characters, much-needed political escapism and distinctive millennial humor.
The book’s protagonist, Alex, Georgetown senior and adored son of President Ellen Claremont, just wants to graduate college, help his mom get reelected and kick-start his political career. He emphatically does not want to spend any more time with the stuck-up prince of England, but the media frenzy following Cakegate leaves him little choice but to agree to a PR friendship with Henry for the sake of diplomatic relations. This attempt at damage control soon spirals into a friendship and even romance that comes with its own set of obstacles.
“Red, White & Royal Blue” draws its greatest strength from the vividness of its characters. They reveal themselves in flashes, each detail sculpting them into people I either want to be or befriend immediately. Every character’s construction, so organic yet so complete, renders each intensely relatable in spite of their status as political royalty, and none more so than the two elites at the center of the novel.
Alex, who is proudly biracial, hate-reads Henry’s Wikipedia page, dreams of turning Texas blue and turkey-sits for the White House pardoning ceremony after discovering how much housing the nightmarish birds costs taxpayers. Henry, behind his detached royal facade, watches “The Great British Bake Off,” stress-eats ice cream and flirts, in classic millennial fashion, by calling Alex a “demon.”
Their relationship is the beating heart of the novel, with every text and email they send, every secret fear and anxiety they admit to, every time they tease each other or muse about their place in the world and in history. Each step of their relationship — from their cake-destroying bickering to their flirtatious back-and-forth to the eventual baring of their souls — is a delight to read.
Even with the strength of the main characters, “Red, White & Royal Blue” would be incomplete without the spectacular supporting characters rounding out the cast. Never in my life have I felt so attached to every minor character in a book, yet this one makes it easy and even inevitable.
Alex’s sister June, an aspiring journalist, delights in teasing Alex and threatens to block his number when he antagonizes her. Their best friend Nora, granddaughter of the vice president and genius data scientist, is saved in Alex’s phone as “irl chaos demon” — a true testament to the tongue-in-cheek banter and taunts that define the closest friendships in my life — and describes her desired look as “depressed lesbian poet who met a hot yoga instructor at a speakeasy.” Alex and June’s mom, Ellen, is a fierce Texan woman whose contributions to the book include a PowerPoint slide titled: “Exploring Your Sexuality: Healthy, But Does It Have to Be With the Prince of England?”
Each character breathes life into the novel, and their relationships make the dialogue enjoyable and entirely authentic, a far cry from painfully stilted attempts by other authors to replicate life at this age. Their banter will make you want to befriend them and join their group chats and karaoke outings.
At every point in the book, the high stakes for all the characters — both personal and political — feel tangible amid the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign to reelect the first female president and the firm traditionalism of the British crown. Rather than seeming overdone or unrealistic, these tensions in Alex and Henry’s relationship make the novel exhilarating and impossible to put down.
“Red, White & Royal Blue” lets us live in a world, however briefly, in which a liberal woman won the presidency in 2016. Even as it tackles sexuality, racism and the thorny expanse of U.S. politics, this novel remains playful, heartfelt and unapologetically romantic.
At its core, McQuiston’s debut work is a masterful exploration of youth in the modern era that feels simultaneously extravagant and somehow within reach. You don’t have to be a political icon or engaged in a whirlwind romance to relate to how the characters talk and text and react and interact. This debut fits cozily under the genre of “new adult” books, or stories that feature characters my age and address a life era that both young adult and literary fiction miss; this genre will be the focus of my column this semester.
I love “Red, White & Royal Blue” because reading it was the most understood I have ever felt by an author, and because I know if I were Alex, I too would somehow end up babysitting turkeys and freaking out about it.
Catriona Kendall is a graduate of the School of Foreign Service. She formerly served as managing editor at The Hoya. Managing Reads will appear in print and online every other week.