Royals by Emma Forrest

Imagine if Jeanette Winterson wrote episodes of Made in Chelsea, and set them in the eighties? You’d have Royals by Emma Forrest.

Royals opens with 18-year-old Steven, preparing for a street party to celebrate the wedding of Lady Diana and Prince Charles. Steven is obsessed with fashion, and dreams of leaving behind his working-class upbringing to become a designer. Steven’s mum is his greatest supporter, and his father is a violent alcoholic.

He was jealous of me and Mum. It upset him that I made her happy. He wanted her to be happy, but he didn’t know how to do it himself. He bought her perfume on her birthday and he hit her. He got her kitchen remodelled, and he hit her.

As Di and Charles start their three-week honeymoon, Steven recovers from one of his father’s beatings in hospital. There he meets fellow patient, Jasmine. She’s a heiress, beautiful and deeply troubled (suicidal tendencies and a father who has ‘…extended absences and celebrated reappearances‘).

Jasmine sweeps Steven into her dazzling world and as the weeks unfold (with the progress of Royal honeymoon as a touchstone), their friendship grows. However, all parties must come to an end.

If you’re meant to hold those you care about lightly, I was squeezing my ‘future’ like a toddler holding Play Doh. You have so little, then, that’s actually yours, what you imagine is yours you’re constantly breaking with the ecstasy of ownership.

The themes are obvious – the contrast between rich and poor, and the development of identity. Although these themes are appropriate for Steven and Jasmine’s age and circumstances, their personal revelations and the progress of their relationship is rushed and unlikely. There’s a reason for the tight timeline that’s revealed in a dramatic ending but for the majority of the book, it’s structurally problematic.

Forrest attempts to address this issue by including numerous reflections from the adult Steven who, having realised his dream of becoming a designer, is looking back on his tumultuous friendship with Jasmine. These reflections are clunky, pretentious, and pull the reader out of 1981 London – it’s lazy story-telling.

Idolising someone is the opposite of intimacy, but I didn’t know that then.

Perhaps I’m being a grump. Expect terrific eighties references (Adam Ant stationery!) and Forrest’s writing, particularly the dialogue, is clever and engaging. She reminds us that wealth does not protect from problematic relationships, and can in fact present a whole bunch of other issues – flighty, directionless Jasmine comes across as worse off than Steven who, although lacking means, has ambition.

I knew she just expected her heart’s desire to always be available. It made up for her dad. You couldn’t have the most basic thing a girl deserves, so instead you could have the most complicated and obscure. She was genuinely surprised the charity shop had no glass Murano fish.

As characters, Jasmine and Steven seem too much at times. The more restrained development of Jasmine’s father and Steven’s mother was a highlight. Of Jasmine’s relationship with her father –

She had a lifetime supply of duty free, but to her it was irrefutable proof that he always remembered her, that she was always on his mind. Children are loyal to their parents and children are even more loyal to damaged parents.

And Steven’s mother –

I know she’d thought up a lot of inner lives, from the meticulousness with which she maintained her black hair and half-moon nails. No one ever creates a solid look – no matter the look – if they don’t harbour fantasies of escape. That’s the whole point of a signature style, To take you away from it all when you have to spend a lot of your time standing still.

We know how the Charles and Di story ended – it’s a clumsy parallel for Steven and Jasmine, however, I did linger over one of the final lines in the book –

Diana probably only did end up where she was because she was a bit directionless. She was great looking and looked beautiful in clothes – so what? She had a big heart, that’s all. She had a big heart and was a bit fucked up. That’s a powerful combination: beauty, heart, unhappiness. She gave a lot of people their direction.

3/5 Zip through it over summer.

I received my copy of Royals from the publisher, Bloomsbury, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Don’t all of us spend our days at school not listening to the teacher because we’re practising our autographs? That’s exactly how I spent my school time. I’d gravitated, with age, from a neat, right-sloping italic to a left-leaning scrawl intended to conjure a poet trying to write after an absinthe bender.

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  1. Pingback: 2019: What I Read | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

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