Could a transatlantic love affair between two pampered, highly privileged teenagers hold the attention of a jaded tired Brit, weaned on socialist rhetoric? Could that same Brit look beyond the slightly cliched and stereotypical portrayal of the United Kingdom?
It turns out that the answer to both those questions is yes. I was far more invested in the characters of Alex Claremont-Diaz and Henry, Prince of Wales – and the relationship between them – than I would ever have expected.
The scenario is set up thus: in 2016 at the close of his mother’s first term as President, Alex and his sister June and their best friend Nora, grand-daughter of the Vice President, are the glittering photogenic darlings of the world media, loved and photographed and pursued. The trio seem to delight in creating gossip and rumour about their love lives, treating it as a game, whilst simultaneously feeling a little adrift and superfluous. They already know Henry in a diplomatic capacity and Alex insists that he despises all that Henry stands for.
One convenient plot device later – which has the subtlety of an episode of Friends – and Alex and Henry’s rivalry creates a diplomatic incident involving a minor physical altercation and
The next thing he knows, he [Alex] is tripping over his own foot and stumbling backward into the table nearest him. He notices too late that the table is, to his horror, the one bearing the massive eight-tier wedding cake, and he grabs for Henry’s arm to catch himself, but all it does is throw both of them off-balance and send them crashing together into the cake stand.
He watches, as if in slow motion, as the cake leans, teeters, shudders, and finally tips. There’s absolutely nothing he can do to stop it. It comes crashing down onto the floor in an avalanche of white buttercream, some kind of sugary $75,000 nightmare.
To manage the situation, the White House and Palace conspire to solidify a friendship between the two by an enforced and curated stay over at the Palace. Over the weekend, we are treated to glimpses of true compassion beneath that cliched British reserve; bickering over favourite Star Wars films; a lock down in a hospital. And finally mobile numbers are exchanged. Texts swapped. Dead of night phones. Frenemy becomes friend. And on New Year’s Eve, Henry kisses Alex in the White House.
From that point, with a few chapters of slightly self conscious soul searching, the relationship grows.
And becomes sexual. The sex is somehow simultaneously explicit and evasive. Now, I am not an avid reader of either romance or erotica so I have limited material with which to compare this, but there is an awful lot of sex between these characters, both oral and anal, but the descriptions are… coy. McQuiston focuses on faces generally at these moments and eyes – and generally the characters disappear into a mosaic of body parts, but generally not the active or pertinent body parts for the physical acts.
It pushes Henry over some kind of edge, melted and overwhelmed on the lush bedclothes. Alex spends nearly an hour afterward coaxing little tremors out of him, in awe of his elaborate expressions of wonder and blissful agony, ghosting featherlight fingertips over his collarbone, his ankles, the insides of his knees, the small bones of the backs of his hands, the dip of his lower lip. He touches and touches until he brings Henry to another brink with only his fingertips, only his breath on the inside of his thighs, the promise of Alex’s mouth where he’d pressed his fingers before.
McQuiston did seem to like the verb “to ghost” both as to disappear and ignore messages and to describe featherlight finger touches.
Diverse in every aspect – in race, sexuality and gender identity – and peopled almost entirely with good hearted and honest people, this is clearly (tragically) not modern real America. It is a heart-warming loving hug of a book. I mean, a dual heritage re-constituted Mexican-American family in the White House? A female President of the United States? Really?! But it has been informed by real politics. From the moment that Henry and Alex start using emails to communicate as frankly and openly as they do – and those emails were some of the sweetest parts of the book – as a reader, you were just waiting for those emails and the email servers to become public property. Echoes of Hilary Clinton’s email servers, perhaps.
There is a shadowy sinister right wing threat in Jeffrey Richards – hidden in the text and unseen, but extending a predatory influence. Echoes, perhaps, of Trump? Or perhaps a slightly exaggerated stereotype of the right.
Obviously the course of true love does not run smoothly here. Both Henry and Alex have their public personae as well as their private feelings to contend with, and the political implications of their feelings. How could their love remain hidden? And how can a hidden love last?
For me, the heart of this novel was in the minor characters: Amy, “his mother’s favorite Secret Service agent, a former Navy SEAL who is rumored around DC to have killed several men” and to have transitioned and be living with her wife; Zahra, “his mom’s deputy chief of staff and right-hand woman”; “Shaan Srivastava, Prince Henry’s equerry”; Pez, or Percy Okonjo, Henry’s flamboyant best friend. The ensemble hold together and manage and orchestrate – but ultimately unequivocally support – both Alex and Henry, and their relationship.
I did also love McQuiston’s opening paragraph in the dedication
I came up with the idea for this book on an I-10 off-ramp in early 2016, and I never imagined what it would turn out to be. I mean, at that point I couldn’t imagine what 2016 itself would turn out to be. Yikes. For months after November, I gave up on writing this book. Suddenly what was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek parallel universe needed to be escapist, trauma-soothing, alternate-but-realistic reality. Not a perfect world—one still believably fucked up, just a little better, a little more optimistic. I wasn’t sure I was up to the task. I hoped I was.
And that sums up the novel so much better than I can: it is escapist and trauma-soothing, sexy and inclusive, non-judgmental and diverse. The appeal of the book is exactly this. It’s simple human warmth and reassurance that the world can be like that, even if it doesn’t seem that way right now.
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Date: 1st June 2019