The Washingtons have ruled America for almost 250 years. Princess Beatrice, as heir to the throne, feels the responsibility of that legacy and has been preparing all her life to take it on. Poised, reflective and supremely self-controlled, she’s keenly aware that her duty to the crown comes before everything else. In the meantime, Beatrice’s younger siblings—twins Samantha and Jeff—are left to drift from party to party, neither held to the same standards nor paid the same attention as their older sister. Samantha may resent her position as ‘the spare’, but she’s definitely making the most of the freedom it allows her! The public face of the Washington family is carefully managed, but behind their court personas lie secrets and scandals that could cost them everything, and some of them are about to have some serious choices to make…
American Royals, by Katharine McGee, imagines a world where George Washington, at the close of the Battle of Yorktown, was convinced to become America’s first king and found a new monarchy, the descendants of which we follow in the book. Leaving aside the fact that it’s kind of a historically ridiculous idea, I completely love the royal family that McGee envisions, and there are some nice touches that show the author has given serious thought to what else might be different had America taken this path. The book has four point of view characters, two within the royal family and two on the outside. Princesses Beatrice and Samantha make up our window into the Washington family’s inner workings, our other two perspectives come from Daphne Deighton (ex-girlfriend, hoping to soon be an ex-ex, of Prince Jefferson) and Nina Gonzalez (close friend to the twins).
One of the first things I noticed when I started reading was how strongly Beatrice’s character came through, and how much I liked her. It becomes quickly apparent that she has spent her entire life willingly (even if not happily) putting the needs of her position above her wants as a person, and there’s a wistfulness about her as a result of that which I found immediately endearing.
“She used her thumb to pull back the pages of the folder and let them fan back down. Only a dozen young men were included.
“This folder is pretty thin,’ she said softly.”
The characters in general were a real strength of this book for me; most of them intelligent, well-meaning and feeling properly three-dimensional, most of them coming from a really understandable place when there were disagreements between them. Daphne, one of our point of view characters, quickly emerges as the villain of the story (or a villain at least, along with the press, vicious commenters on the internet and the idea of a life lived without hope of having the things you want). She has scheming down to an art form, and she’s single minded in what she wants, but she’s still given the chance to be a person. She has layers, and she’s written with enough intelligence and class that she isn’t cartoonishly evil, even if some of her actions could be characterized as such.
“She knew what was expected of her. If a plan didn’t work, she had to make another; if she slipped and fell, she must always fall forward. It could only ever be onward and upward for her.”
The way the plot played out was predictable in its overarching shape, but with some pleasant surprises in there, most notably due to characters actually being prepared to talk to each other in a lot of cases where (arguably) weaker writing would create drama by having them all hide things from each other constantly. A lot of the narrative revolves around romantic entanglements, all of which are clearly signaled from early on in the story, but the obstacles in the way of the various relationships are genuine ones and I could understand why the characters would struggle to make things work under the circumstances. I liked the way the story showed characters who cared about each other trying to come up with compromises and meet each other halfway. Of course, there was also plenty of illicit glancing, sneaking around and pining for each other, but in some books you only get that part and you’re expected to trust that there’s a healthy relationship in there somewhere, just waiting to be released. I think McGee struck a nice balance here.
Speaking of balances well-struck, there’s some pointed social criticism laced into the narrative of American Royals, particularly around social standards for women as opposed to men. It’s clearly not the main point of the story to explore this issue, but I appreciated the nods to it, and didn’t feel like it detracted from the fun of the rest of the book. The fact that all four of our point of view characters are women means that we get a diversity of female perspectives on the world of American Royals, and I enjoyed watching the different ways they all interact with the system they’ve grown up in. Beatrice is wary of society, afraid of doing anything that might cause her to be judged but also coming to realise that she’s going to be judged anyway—and probably found wanting, at the end of the day.
“But ever since she’d turned twenty-one, she’d noticed a shift in the way they discussed her love life. Instead of dedicated and virtuous, the reporters had begun to call her lonely and pitiable—or worse, frigid.”
Sam has an utter disregard for ‘what people think’, largely because she knows she’s never going to be as important as Beatrice and so why worry about it? Nina is similarly uninterested in societal opinion, at least to start with, but there’s an interesting contrast that emerges between her and Sam in terms of the way their relative privilege and experience in the public eye affects their experience of fame. And then there’s Daphne, who’s keenly aware of what society wants from her and has become skilled at turning it to her advantage.
The end of the book leaves a lot unresolved, making very deliberate room for the sequel (due in Autumn of 2020). With that being said, I found the ending reasonably satisfying as a place to pause the story. You could argue that some of the characters have come full circle, and there is a sense that some of them have grown over the course of the story only to go right back to where they were as the book opened, but I also felt that there was a lot of genuine character development which has laid the groundwork for new lessons to be learned, and new solutions to be found, in book two.
Overall, I had a huge amount of fun reading this book, and I’ll be keenly awaiting the next installment this year. I would recommend it to readers teenaged and upwards, and especially to people who enjoyed The Princess Diaries or The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. A whirling, impossibly glamorous story of forbidden romance and the ties of responsibility, American Royals is a joy to read.
This is my Review of the Month for the review collection on LovelyAudiobooks.info