"Don't get caught." It's rule number one, and it's etched behind some loose paneling at the White House in Casey McQuiston's lively debut, Red, White & Royal Blue. That dictum is the first of many juicy secrets waiting to be discovered. Nobody knows who wrote it, but it's how First Sons and First Daughters of the United States of America must live. In the era of paparazzi, tabloids, smartphones and social media, however, there are fewer and fewer ways left to keep youthful indiscretions under wraps.
Which isn't to say 20-something national heartthrob Alex Claremont-Diaz and his sister, June, don't find fun ways to endure their overexposure: placing bets on which rumors surface and when, running interference by leaking their own gossip. Both are sharp and ambitious; Alex aims to become a policymaker and June is working hard on a career in journalism. They are thick as thieves with Nora, granddaughter of the Vice President, and the White House Trio has perfected the art of not getting caught.
Luckily, they have a lot of help from President Ellen Claremont-Diaz's tireless team. Deputy chief of staff Zahra Bankston, prickly and ever-so-efficient, for instance, has been overseeing the family's affairs and public image since Alex was five.
So, when he gets into a scrap with the dashing but insufferable Prince Henry of Wales--destroying the cake at Henry's brother's wedding--damage control means playing the incident off as friendly roughhousing. The operative word there being friendly. The problem is that there is no one Alex despises more than the prince. Their friendship will have to be built from the ground up. Or, as it happens, from the outside in.
With clever comedic timing and a self-possessed charm, McQuiston constructs rich sexual tension between two young men who ostensibly hate each other. Alex and Henry are forced into a chummy charade to mitigate blowback from the wedding incident, sending both across the Atlantic numerous times to fabricate a public impression that they have been best buds for years. They appear on talk shows and set up photo ops, palling around England and the U.S. with bright shining smiles.
In private, however, they have harbored petty grudges against one another since Alex was 18. He introduced himself to the prince at the Rio Olympics, and Henry responded by asking his attendant, "Can you get rid of him?" Ever since it's been slights and snipes between the two. Sure, Alex can see why others might swoon over the guy: "Whatever, fine. Henry is annoyingly attractive. That's always been a thing, objectively. It's fine." But it doesn't make it any easier to pretend to be friends with him. Until, that is, Henry begins letting down his stiff and polished guard as he and Alex text more and more. And more.
The bond McQuiston fashions between them is heartwarming and organic. Who understands the pressures and boundaries of their lives better than each other? And while Henry's sexuality has been stifled by family decorum, like so many before him, Alex's creeps up on him in the way these things can for those whose attractions are more fluid. "He's definitely not thinking about Henry.... He's not thinking about Henry in the shower or at night, alone and wide awake in his bed. Except for when he is. Which is always."
It takes a droll heart-to-heart with the reliably deadpan Nora to get him on board: "Oh, like, I thought we were already there with you being bi and everything," she explains compassionately, if a little impatiently. "Sorry, are we not? Did I skip ahead again? My bad. Hello, would you like to come out to me? I'm listening. Hi."
As with his own congressional ambitions, Alex plunges headfirst into getting a wrangle on his newfound queerness. This is where Red, White & Royal Blue truly shines. Sorting out one's sexuality is hard enough without being under constant public scrutiny. Nevertheless, Alex's enthusiasm for American politics and history extends insatiably into LGBT history beyond Stonewall and AIDS. And Henry is all too pleased to elaborate about Britain's, including King James I (of biblical fame) and his "gentlemen of the bedchamber." In time, he and Henry begin signing off their e-mail exchanges with excerpted love letters: Alexander Hamilton to John Laurens, Allen Ginsberg to Peter Orlovsky, Eleanor Roosevelt to Lorena Hickock. But if the lovers get caught, it could spark a scandal much larger than some silly little cake dive.
McQuiston digs up enough of the past to show that a clandestine affair between the son of a sitting American president and the Prince of Wales is not nearly as unlikely as it sounds. In fact, their frequent, libidinous exchanges fit right in with a long tradition of forbidden love in the highest echelons of power. Their affair isn't exclusively long-distance, though. When they do come close enough to touch, the scenes light up like the Fourth of July.
Casey McQuiston dazzles with Red, White & Royal Blue. Passion characterizes every moment of this smart, mischievous, gratifying and sensitive novel. The punch lines are deft, the sex is steamy and the romance is stirring. --Dave Wheeler, associate editor, Shelf Awareness