ARC Review: Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

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First Son Alex Claremont-Diaz is the closest thing to a prince this side of the Atlantic. With his intrepid sister and the Veep’s genius granddaughter, they’re the White House Trio, a beautiful millennial marketing strategy for his mother, President Ellen Claremont. International socialite duties do have downsides—namely, when photos of a confrontation with his longtime nemesis Prince Henry at a royal wedding leak to the tabloids and threaten American/British relations.
The plan for damage control: staging a fake friendship between the First Son and the Prince. Alex is busy enough handling his mother’s bloodthirsty opponents and his own political ambitions without an uptight royal slowing him down. But beneath Henry’s Prince Charming veneer, there’s a soft-hearted eccentric with a dry sense of humor and more than one ghost haunting him. 
As President Claremont kicks off her reelection bid, Alex finds himself hurtling into a secret relationship with Henry that could derail the campaign and upend two nations. And Henry throws everything into question for Alex, an impulsive, charming guy who thought he knew everything: What is worth the sacrifice? How do you do all the good you can do? And, most importantly, how will history remember you?

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When I first saw the blurb of this book, I was excited for it. It seemed like a promising entertaining rom-com (which I enjoy a lot) with a political/royal backdrop that felt like icing on the cake. However, this has just turned out to be soooooo much more. I don’t even have proper words to describe how much I loved it – just know that I have already read it twice in three days because once was definitely not enough. This book has brought me lots of smiles and tears, joy, hope and optimism; so be prepared for a very rambling incoherent mess of gushing words masquerading as a review below.

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I will be upfront and tell you all that I am a “The West Wing” (TV Show) junkie. There’s just something so hopeful about watching a group of people working so hard in politics for the sake of the welfare of the people, without cynicism, with a lot of positivity and genuine interest in public service. Especially considering the dog whistle politics of our current times and the sh*t show we have been subjected to for more than two years now, I am very much thankful for the escapist/alternate reality setting in this book where a Female Texan Democrat with biracial children got elected as President in 2016 and is now up for reelection. It’s probably too unrealistic but it’s also something I didn’t know I needed and the experience has been wonderful. The people working in the White House, the members of the First Family and everyone around them, the Senators we do get to meet in this book are in it for making the world better in the midst of hate and vitriol and scandals and I totally lapped it up. I sincerely hope we do get to see a President Ellen Claremont in our reality too.

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Now coming to the characters. I usually prefer first person dual POVs in romance novels but this story being told in third person from Alex’s perspective just felt too perfect. He is such a wonderful protagonist. He is America’s heartthrob, charming, attractive, funny with massive approval ratings but that’s not all he is. He has aspirations of his own – he is super smart and extremely politically aware, wants to be an active part of the reelection campaign even before he is done with his college graduation, and is already working hard towards his goal of being the youngest member of Congress in modern history. He can also be pretty hyper and over involved in things and forget the whole world around him, but as the story progresses we realize it is more like a defense mechanism that he uses to get past the things that are the root of his anxiety. I completely fell in love with him from the get go and it was great following his story.

Prince Henry of England is pretty much the opposite of Alex, atleast in appearances – beautiful and stoic and reserved and I loved the initial antagonistic nature of their interactions. It’s pretty much obvious right from the beginning that their “arch-nemesis” vibe is less to do with not liking each other and more to do with the unresolved sexual tension but I appreciate the author for developing their friendship first. Through his conversations with Alex, we see that Henry is unlike the other royal family members, is very soft-hearted and thoughtful, doesn’t want to take the traditional military route and concentrate more on his philanthropic aspirations that he shares with his best friend Pez. There is also an underlying sadness to him due to losing his father at a young age and watching him go through his periods of (possible) depression made me very sad. However, Alex understands and falls in love with all of him and the progression of their relationship from friendship to love was a beauty to behold and completely warmed my heart.

As theirs is essentially a long distance relationship, we get to read a lot of text messages, group chats and emails. And god those long emails…. I’ve seen a couple of reviewers complain that they didn’t like them but I was living for them. They were pure, unadulterated, heartfelt love letters and my sappy heart was just waiting for more and more. Alex and Henry just pour out their hearts into words and they are beautiful to read. And these characters are complete nerds, so they also quote love letters from iconic historical figures and those were so much fun. I actually googled more of these historical (some possibly queer) love letters and it was an amazing experience. And the names and titles that Alex and Henry use to refer to themselves and each other are downright hysterical and I have to commend the author for her inventiveness. Their chemistry is absolutely delicious and the intimate scenes are written in a way I’ve not read before – very steamy and fun and full of feeling but with none of the usual vocabulary that we are used to in a New Adult book. I was totally impressed by the writing in every scene where they are together.

The advantage of a book with more than 400 pages is that it provides ample opportunity for well fleshed out side characters and I think the author does a bang up job at it. Alex’s sister June is the one in the trio who keeps them steady when both Alex and Nora are too absorbed in their work. She is a journalism graduate and it was interesting to see her struggle with being unable to pursue her dream job because of journalistic neutrality and through the book, we see her figure out what other dreams she can pursue and how much she wants to be involved in her mother’s politics. Nora, the Veep’s granddaughter is the smartest of the trio, the data analysis guru (à la Nate Silver) who is always crunching numbers and may not seem good at emotional bonding, but is actually pretty good at giving pep talks when absolutely required. On the other side of the Atlantic are Bea – Henry’s older sister who has own issues from the past but is an absolute rock in support of her brother. And Pez… probably my favorite of the Super Six. He is like the shining star, charming and absolutely flamboyant and colorful, very comfortable in his own skin and wants to establish his charity organization internationally. All six of them may come from rich, political and royal backgrounds but they all felt so real and representative of the millennials and Gen Z – very aware of the society around them, both the good and the bad and having a fire in their belly to do something to leave the world a better place than what they started off with.

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The author also did a wonderful job in dealing with sexual identity in the book in different ways. Alex has always assumed he was straight but his realization that he may be bisexual, his introspection into all the little things that he may have dismissed before and finally being comfortable with his realization is all done with a lot of sensitivity and I really appreciated it. It also goes to show that sexuality is not set in stone that you have to decide on in your teens, people evolve and understand themselves better and sometimes, you realize things about yourself in your 20s and that’s totally okay. And the genuine support he gets from his family is awesome. A female President’s half-Mexican son getting outed in an election year is definitely a political hurdle, but it was good to see the family and the staff rally around him and prove that they actually do stand for the principles they espouse. In the case of Henry, he has always known that he is gay but he has to deal with the burden of the monarchy and their extreme regard for legacy and what it means to choose happiness over his birthright and country. Nora is also bisexual but she literally has no time or interest in dating and is too busy with her computers and numbers. We also have a host of other diverse characters and it all felt like a group of people around us in the real world and not tokenism.

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Casey mentions in the author’s note that she wanted to write a “trauma-soothing, alternate-but-realistic reality, a believably f**ked up world, but just a little better, a little more optimistic”. And she succeeds brilliantly in this endeavor. It definitely filled me with joy, gave me some hope that it is still possible to change our ugly reality, defeat the hateful, and maybe finally turn those unwinnable “red” states to “blue”. I love the way the author managed to keep the perfect balance between a swoon worthy love story and the reality of being a public figure with huge aspirations for the future.

I don’t know if I have made any sense in the above almost 1500 word rant and I don’t think I have truly been able to express everything that I felt while reading it, but to sum it up, this book is wonderful and it made me very happy and I recommend it to everybody. If you love pure, heartfelt love stories, then this book is for you. If you have ever binge watched The West Wing and loved it, then this book is for you. If you have felt dejected and exhausted with politics in the past two years and want to enjoy a little escape from reality, then this book is for you. In the author’s own words –

“I hope you found a place in here, even if just for a few pages. You are loved. I wrote this for you. Keep fighting, keep making history, keep looking after one another.”

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PS: Thank you so much to St. Martin’s Press and Netgalley for providing me with this advance review copy. All opinions expressed here are unbiased and solely mine.

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