It’s often exhausting to live in contemporary America—and not, generally, the fulfilling kind of exhausting, either. We spend our days at bullshit jobs (she writes, affectionately) making less money than we need in order to get out of debt, contributing to crowdfunding campaigns to pay our friends and colleagues’ medical bills, and then we go home and consume stories about how dark an imagined past was or an imagined future will be, pretending the story we’re consuming isn’t actually about the dystopian world we’re currently living in.
I don’t think the world is without hope, joy, community, or love—far from it—but I do think nihilism, violence, social isolation, and the abuse of power tend to be the realities of our modern world that are most often reflected back at us through popular culture.
Grimdark storytelling is way overrepresented in our pop culture to the exclusion and deprioritization of other, kinder aspects of contemporary life. It actively affects how hopeful we are about our current world and our potential futures, which actively affects how motivated (or not) we are to engage with working towards that future. That’s why it’s so worth celebrating when pop culture puts something softer in our paths…
Red, White, and Royal Blue is a queer romance novel about the relationship between the U.S.’s First Son and the Prince of England, set in a fictional alternate universe where the president is a divorced-mom Texan Democrat elected in the 2016 Presidential Election. (Can you imagine? Within the pages of this book, you don’t have to.) It is emotionally-engaging, politically-soothing, and a whole lot of fun.
Our protagonist is Alex Claremont-Diaz, the brilliant half-Mexican son of his mom the President, who is up for re-election. Unlike his sister, Alex has always seen his politically successful family as a fortunate stepping stone to his own ambitions: namely, his own career in politics, through which he hopes to make the country and world a more just, inclusive place. #goals
The other main character in Red, White, and Royal Blue is Henry, the seemingly stuffy, unfeeling Prince of England. Alex has hated Henry since he met him a few years prior at the Olympics (as you do), but, when the tension between the two causes a PR problem during a royal wedding, they are forced to pretend to be best friends for the ‘gram.
This isn’t a straight-forward “coming out” story (if that even exists). While Alex is initially surprised by his bisexuality, he doesn’t freak out (much) about his attraction to men. He’s never afraid that his family will disown him, so much as he is worried how the public knowledge would affect his mother’s chances at re-election. As she is running against a bigot with a cornucopia of abuses of power in his history, the stakes are quite high.
Much of the angst Alex has surrounding this development in the understanding of his own sexuality is about the identity of the man in question—a person he kinda, sorta thought he hated until five minutes ago—rather than that man’s, um, manhood.
The relatively quick progression of Alex and Henry’s physical relationship is perhaps one of the most notable differences in telling this story about twenty-something adults for the new adult field rather than about teenagers under the YA book umbrella, the latter of which is often where queer romances tend to be most frequently championed.
Alex and Henry are two characters who are much more comfortable in their sexuality, generally, compared to teen characters. While neither character has expansive relationship experience, in no small part due to the added pressure and scrutiny that comes from their fame, they both have a fair amount of dating (in Alex’s case) and sexual experience (in both of their cases).
When Alex and Henry first admit their attraction to one another, there is very little waffling in terms of their sexual relationship. It gets steamy and, as they spent more time together, finding time for clandestine hookups on both sides of the Atlantic, Alex realized that it’s quite possible he has been misreading his intense feelings towards Henry for a long time. (Spoiler alert: he has been.)
In fanfic slang, if you speak that language, this is the Enemies to Friends to Lovers, Royalty, Fake/Pretend Relationship-ish AU with notes of Families of Choice and depictions of Anxiety that you’ve been waiting for. It pairs well with Netflix’s Knock Down the House documentary, the wonderfully soft hockey bros comic Check, Please, Mackenzi Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, and Frank Turner—or all four! Make it a month of hopeful media. I dare you.
This book made me cry—not because of the excellent, well-written romance at its center (which is both fun and emotionally rewarding), but because it imagines a world in which Trump was never elected, a world in which powerful men who have grown up in power respect and love women, a world in which America’s soul is challenged and found whole.
The world of Red, White, and Royal Blue, as touched upon in the book’s excellent author’s note, is not a perfect one—”still believably fucked up, just a little better, a little more optimistic.” When McQuiston began writing the book in 2016, she said it was meant to be “a tongue-in-cheek parallel universe,” but, as our sociopolitical cycle progressed, it became an “escapist, trauma-soothing, alternate-but-realistic reality.” Oof.
It’s hard to truly understand the ways in which most mainstream storytelling is not made for you until you find a story that feels like it is made for you. Red, White, and Royal Blue references Jane Austen, quotes Alexander Hamilton’s love letters to Eliza and John Laurens, and obviously thinks Doctor Who is cool. It is a millennially-minded West Wing meets Jane Austen meets the Hallmark Channel meets something much more diverse than anything that has ever aired on the Hallmark Channel.
Most of all,Red, White, and Royal Blue isincredibly hopeful and empathetic, which is a perspective I am actively trying to hold on to in a world that seems to always be finding new, terrible ways to try to steal it from me. Reading this queer romance political AU felt a bit like coming home: a safe, familiar, cozy place to rest my head for a while. Red, White, and Royal Blue doesn’t ignore some of the very scary realities of living in our world right now, but it hopes with everything it has nonetheless.
Sometimes, it can feel like we punish ourselves with the pop culture we make and consume, as if engaging with fun, hopeful, or kind storytelling is an irresponsible luxury we can’t afford rather than a practice that makes us better equipped for dealing with life’s complex, devastating, sustained challenges.
Yes, seeing the ways in which things are bad can be a helpful tool for both conversation and action, especially when grimdark storytelling has something important and specific to say, but it can also often make us feel like we are doing something when we are not—as if watching The Handmaid’s Tale is the same thing as taking place in direct actions against institutional misogyny or actively supporting and believing the women in your life. As if watching consuming the “right” media makes us more moral.
I don’t need fictional reminders of the ways in which our society is failing; it’s all too clear in the world around me. What I do need from stories is hope that there are futures that look different from the grimmest parts of our present extrapolated out into various flavors of apocalypse. I need stories that hope engaging with real-world problems can make a difference, and call that hope something other than naive.
I need stories that fill me up with something other than anger, fear, and desperation, that offer possible solutions or at least sources of comfort in the face of solution-less problems rather than simply pointing out the harsh realities and stopping there, as if there is more skill involved in screaming your pain into the darkness than there is in finding love, healing, and empathy in spite of that pain.
“What I hoped to do, and what I hope I have done with this book by the time you’ve finished it, my dear reader, [is] to be the spark of joy and hope you needed,” McQuiston writes in her author’s note. Mission so very much accomplished, Casey McQuiston.