In the latest addition to our series investigating whether TikTok can recommend good books, Kerry McGahan debates the merits of Red, White & Royal Blue.
Casey McQuiston’s 2019 novel, Red, White & Royal Blue, is a piece of writing which seems to linger in the uncomfortable and difficult to define space that exists between young adult and adult novels. Combining YA’s simplistic writing style and surface-level exploration of complicated topics with mature themes and sex scenes abound, this book would have previously found it difficult to land an audience – but in the modern day, it was quickly entered into the cycles of BookTok.
I came across Red, White & Royal Blue in August of 2020, when the summer had led me down a dark reading path. Desperate for something – anything – to stimulate my brain after almost half a year of mind-numbing boredom and misery, I first turned to Tartt, King, Plath, and even allowed myself to be devastated by Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. I’d seen McQuiston’s novel before, of course, in the realms of Twitter, YouTube and TikTok, but my anti-Monarchist leanings led to my hesitance. Finally, as the summer came to a close, I gave in to the peer pressure, and found myself pleasantly surprised that after the weeks of trudging through classics that I had endured, a lighter read was what I needed.
Now, I’ll say it right off the bat: this book is winning no Pulitzer Prizes. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think that it benefitted from the culture which it entered into. Debuting to a Trump Presidency, Red, White & Royal Blue presents an idealised version of the American political system; one where liberty is uplifted rather than muffled, and the oppressed minorities of the tale are able to make change at the top of the system.
The love story of a bisexual Mexican First Son and a gay English prince is an undoubtedly refreshing piece of media, one which presents the couple not as a threat to either political institution but as a gift. But this is, ultimately, the neo-liberal dream, with the idea that the American political system in particular just needs a few screws tightened rather than a complete overhaul.
There are criticisms to be made of every book. The attitude towards books on TikTok, I’ve noticed, is extremely hot and cold – something that is circulated as the next Gatsby is despised the following week for some minor flaw. Look at Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, for example, which I’ve often seen criticised for the pretentious nature that is its very point. Red, White & Royal Blue is not the book of the century, as some on BookTok initially portrayed it as, but it is also not the out-of-touch piece of work I feared it would be. I was pleasantly surprised by this book, and the light-hearted yet touching portrayal of young love in the face of adversity.I would say don’t let the internet tell you what to read. The online cycle moves so quickly that by the time you get to reading something, everyone else will have already moved on. Instead, look at everything you consume with nuance. Red, White & Royal Blue is certainly not more than a slightly cheesy love story with a few political undertones, and that’s okay! I still finished it in less than a day.
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