The year is 2020, and America's first woman president is campaigning for her second term — not Hillary Clinton with her decades of political baggage, but Ellen Claremont, a whip-smart progressive Democrat from Austin, Texas.
Her bright, ambitious children, Alex and June Claremont-Diaz, are biracial and multilingual, descended from Mexican immigrants on their father's side. Alex is bisexual and hopelessly in love with Britain's secretly-gay Prince Henry, a relationship that will change the course of LGBTQ+ history. There's no pandemic, not a Trump or Boris in sight, and things are going to be okay.
This is the soothing alternate universe of Red, White & Royal Blue, the 2019 debut novel by Casey McQuiston. Published two years ago today, it was a New York Times best-seller that carved out a new space for LGBTQ+ romance novels — and its influence has only gotten bigger as we've slogged through quarantine and the end of the Trump presidency.
"This book has found its greatest success in the last six months," McQuiston told The Advocate. On the phone from New York City, the 30-year-old queer author was weeks away from the release of her highly-anticipated second novel, One Last Stop. "I have seen more sales and more responses from readers and more everything in the past several months of the pandemic, than I did in the first year that the book was out."
She first came up with the idea in early 2016, only to be derailed by the election of Donald Trump. In the acknowledgements, she wrote that she gave up on the book for months afterward. "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."
RW&RB combines clever insights about politics, journalism and LGBTQ+ culture with unabashed references to the "comfort food" entertainment we've all been leaning on these past few years — Parks & Recreation, The Great British Baking Show, the Star Wars universe. Alex has all the charm, optimism and snarky one-liners of a character from The West Wing (without the tone-deafness about American exceptionalism, fortunately), and Henry falls somewhere between a Disney prince and the 2005 Pride and Prejudice movie.
Much of the book's popularity comes from how skilfully it uses the familiar tropes of rom-coms, romance novels and, dare we say it, fan fiction — the Slow Burn, the Enemies-to-Lovers, the Secret Relationship. After a years-long feud between Alex and Henry leads to a tabloid scandal, the White House and the royal family stage a fake PR friendship; but they end up on the brink of an international crisis when Alex and Henry fall for each other. Alex's clueless bisexual awakening and the president's response of a PowerPoint briefing with titles like FEDERAL FUNDING, TRAVEL EXPENSES, BOOTY CALLS, AND YOU are laugh-out-loud funny; Henry's letters to Alex about being forced into the closet by his family's legacy can bring you to tears.
Embracing this kind of storytelling is a point of pride for McQuiston, who enjoys falling down TVTropes.org rabbit holes in her free time. "I think tropes exist for a reason. If a storytelling device is used again and again, it's often because it's been very successful in emotionally connecting with its audience.
"The idea that anything is over or done to death is silly, once you start imagining the possibility of stories that aren't cis, het, white stories. Maybe we feel like we're done with YA vampire romances, but have you read one by a Black author? Have you read a queer one? I don't think you can declare any trope dead until everybody's had their chance to have a crack at it."
For all its escapism, RW&RB seems fully aware of the harsher world outside the story, from its mockery of the tabloids to its razor-sharp anger at the sexism and bigotry of today's Republican Party. "Come on," Alex's dad says at one point, "I don't think this election is gonna hinge on an email server."
"I almost felt bad about putting that line in," McQuiston remarked. "A friend of mine who was a Hillary staffer read the book and was like, 'I have to tell you, when I read that line it was like being punched in the stomach.'"
Another example is Amy, a Secret Service agent who helps Alex arrange his clandestine meetings with Henry. More than a hundred pages after we meet her, it's casually mentioned that she transitioned and has a wife — a subtle moment, but an important one. "Her being trans was actually something that was shaded in after the trans military ban was announced, back in the early days of the Trump presidency. I was so gut-punched by that announcement that I was like, 'Okay, fuck you, I'm going to put this trans Navy SEAL in my book."
Earlier this year, RW&RB even managed a "life imitates art" connection with Meghan Markle, the young, biracial American who married the U.K.'s Prince Harry and helped him escape the confines of the royal family. "I had no idea those things were going to happen, like Harry and Meghan deciding to be like, 'Peace out, I'm going to Canada,'" McQuiston insisted. "When I wrote the entire first draft, they literally had not even acknowledged that they were together. What kind of third eye did I have open when I was writing this?
"I think Meghan especially is so incredibly smart. She'd been given the biggest gold-foil-wrapped shit sandwich in history — 'It's gonna be great, except everyone's going to be horrible to you and racist to you, and you're going to have to act thankful for it.' She's working with what she's been given, and she is somehow managing to persevere through that."
Watching Oprah's bombshell interview with Harry and Meghan on March 7, it's easy to draw a parallel with the "White House Trio" of the novel — golden boy Alex, his media-savvy sister June, and number-crunching genius Nora, granddaughter of the Vice-President and Alex's ex-girlfriend. Rather than hiding from press attention like the Obama daughters and other first children before them, the Trio use their celebrity status and millennial appeal to shape the narrative for themselves.
Nora in particular has captured readers' curiosity. Identifying as queer herself but shrugging off the idea of a public coming out, she has a deep friendship with June that is strongly hinted to be more than platonic by the end of the book. In a memorable chapter about a karaoke party in West Hollywood, Nora and June crash with Henry's gender-fluid best friend Pez, and "emerge disheveled from their suite looking like the cats that caught the canaries, but it's impossible to tell who is a cat and who is a canary. Nora has a smudge of lipstick on the back of her neck."
"I love them because they’re so there on the page," McQuiston said. "I've always looked for that subtext in everything I read, and I thought it would be really funny to put gay subtext in a gay book. Alex is very, very self-involved, so he might not really pick up on it — but we know. We know what's going on."
We may not have seen the last of these characters, either. She's hinted on Twitter that she recently completed a draft of her third book, and that her "next two romcom projects after [One Last Stop are] both about girls falling in love." Could one of those projects involve June and Nora in a RW&RB spinoff?
"That is such an interesting question!" McQuiston laughed, and declined to share much more than that. "What I can firmly say is it's a big never-say-never situation… People who are supportive of June and Nora, they are very valid, and I support them as well."