Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Book Review: Prince Charles: The Passions & Paradoxes of an Improbable Life

First of all: obviously, a biography will generally only be interesting if the reader is interested in the subject. I know a lot of people are opposed to the modern monarchy or just find royal stuff boring, and that's fine but clearly if you feel that way this is not the book for you! So I'm not going to be trying to litigate any of those questions here. The useful question, I think, is whether, if you are interested in Prince Charles, this is a book you will enjoy. And I think it is!

This biography is very, very detailed, with a ton of information about pretty much every aspect of Charles' life. I'm reasonably well-informed about the royal family, but even so there was so much here I didn't know. Lots about architecture. And sustainable gardening. Charles cares a lot about his pet causes, which is great, but my eyes started to glaze over a TAD during some of that. There was also a lot about royal logistics, which I sincerely find completely fascinating, but again - not exactly a breezy read.

Of course, in among all those details, there's plenty of juicy stuff about Charles' life, including his relationships with Diana and Camilla, his kids, his parents, everyone else. This is not an authorized biography, but Smith clearly had a lot of access and cooperation from people in Charles' life, and she's clearly sympathetic to him. But it's interesting to read while keeping her sources very much in mind - this is what his friends say about xyz, this is what his staff says, etc. There were a lot of details about his relationships that I hadn't read before, and it seems clearer than ever that his marriage to Diana was a complete disaster from the day one - and ever before that - and that they could never have been happy together. It's terribly sad, these two incompatible people who were incapable of giving each other what they needed, and I'm happy that Charles has found happiness with Camilla now.

Camilla sounds pretty awesome here, actually, and given Diana's popularity and Camilla's unpopularity, it was striking to note how Camilla seems much better suited for her public role than Diana ever was. I hadn't realized that during her marriage Diana refused to get involved in causes and resisted public appearances, and only became an advocate later, while Camilla seems to be genuinely comfortable with traveling around promoting good causes and admiring people's prize turnips and such. (In fact, Camilla and Kate seem more naturally suited to this royal role than any of the men, which I suppose makes sense given that they were the ones who had some choice about whether to take it up.) Also, a friend of Camilla's describes her sitting room as "crammed with books and knitting," so obviously we should hang out.

I know the traditions of the monarchy often seem archaic, but one thing this book really brought home was how much thought and effort current members of the royal family, especially the Queen and Prince Charles, have been putting into modernizing it - both politically and economically, as far as revising the way the finances work and coming up with new income streams, as well as culturally, using social media. (At one point they also quoted Prince Harry as basically saying "OMG you guys, JUST TEXT LIKE NORMAL PEOPLE," which was hilarious.)

One thing this book could have really used were some genealogical tables. I mean, I love those in general, but especially in a book like this with so many generations of intermarried families - it would have been useful to easily trace how people were related. (Not the royals - I know who they are - but all the other miscellaneous aristocrats and distant relatives who keep popping up.)

Also! If you're kind of interested but not enough to read 500 pages about architecture and logistics, I'd recommend just reading the highlights from Go Fug Yourself. Their summary is delightful.

And the one thing you really REALLY need to know is that apparently Prince Charles and Mark Rylance correspond about crop circles. Yes, really.

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