REVIEW: Rachel Hauck’s PRINCESS EVER AFTER, Or Inspie “Roman Holiday”

Princess Ever AfterMiss Bates is not a fan of the Disney princess, nor did she ever deck her five-year-old self in pink tulle and trailing strands of costume jewelry to play dress-up princess. Mostly, she reads a lot of romance fiction and plays at Emma‘s Miss Bates, a definite not-princess.  She was taken in, however, by Rachel Hauck’s Princess Ever After cover, with its hint of frivolity, beautiful dress, and promise of happily-ever-after.  Because what Miss Bates loves is Roman-Holiday Audrey Hepburn and all things Grace Kelly, so the idea of an American girl living her dream restoring vintage cars who finds herself the princess of a fictional duchy is a pretty attractive premise.  What she found instead is a novel light on the romance and heavy on the inspirational element, a story more about identity, heritage, and destiny than finding love and wearing pretty princess clothes.  An uneven read, Princess Ever After has strong passages to recommend it and is competently written, but it’s slow (could have been told in half the length) and contains one too many peculiar woo-hoo moments for Miss Bates’s taste.  Miss Bates’s was foiled in her pursuit of a flaky little read for something more serious, albeit told with a light touch but, in the end, less appealing.

Regina Beswick is “a Tallahassee lassie, born and bred” when Tanner Burkhardt arrives to tell her she’s the rightful heir to the throne of Hessenberg, an island nation ceded, by her Great-Uncle Francis in the Great War, to a neighbouring country, Brighton, for a hundred years.  Those years are “up” and Hessenberg must find and install the heir, or rescind its royal heritage forever.  (Apparently, this would be a bad thing.)  Thus begins Regina’s, Reggie’s, struggle to come to terms with her inheritance.  This battle is Hauck’s allegorical referencing for accepting God’s call.  The chosen one, Reggie, echoes through the “generations.”  Reggie’s beloved “Gram” is the historical in this inspirational: her story, in diary-entry form, interspersed throughout the narrative, provides the historical underpinnings to Reggie’s claim.  Tanner functions, at least initially, as the messenger, Gabriel to Reggie’s Mary, or as Reggie notes, “God literally came for you.  In the form of Tanner, but still, he came for you.”  Reggie is doubtful; signs guide her.  Even in Tallahassee in the midst of a pizza party (where Tanner finds her), Reggie sees “for a split second, she could’ve sworn Gram’s gentle blue eyes … peering down at her.”  Blue eyes, by the way, are one of the signs of divine presence in this narrative.  (Apparently, Warner Sallman is the way to go for the appearance of the divine.)    

Tanner Burkhardt, the “fallen man,” who restores the kingdom of Hessenberg by protecting and advising the princess is the most likeable element of Princess Ever After.  Tanner is a man tormented by guilt over past actions.  It is not a mild and nebulous discontent, as we often see in inspirational romance, but a serious and tangible one.  Tanner, a handsome, former-rugby-player, tall, broad, blue-eyed (of course!), keeps his blonde hair long “lest he forget the depths of his depravity.”  In his youth, Tanner and a friend, Trude, with the aid of the demon alcohol (it’s Dr. Pepper for Reggie, a sign of her virginal, unsullied self) had sex.  They didn’t love each other and were regretful.  However, Trude was pregnant and gave birth to beautiful twin girls.  Tanner was their Wednesdays-and-week-ends dad until Trude asked him to give them up so that she could form an “unconfusing,” one-daddy-one-mommy family with her fiancé, Reese.  Tanner was torn, but agreed to what he thought would be best for his girls.  He is wracked by regret and guilt still.  Rightly so.  As a result, he also has a strained relationship with his father, the archbishop.  How Tanner reconciles and re-unites with his father and girls is wonderfully rendered.  It’s real and interesting and believable … outside of that, the novel failed for Miss Bates.     

For the most part, Tanner spends the novel’s duration experiencing heart-clenching feels for Reggie.  She is cute, with her big, blue!! eyes, and long, red hair.  There are some great little passages when Tanner is … gasp … physically attracted to this paragon: “It was her.  She had this odd effect on people that made them want to open their hearts.”  Tanner is pretty wonderful to begin with and, not surprisingly, Reggie brings out the best in him … but everything does!  Their give-and-take, running in the rain, and shared meals are fun to read, but the last third of the novel sees Tanner recognizing the mystical in Reggie and this takes away from the already dubious plausibility of the narrative.  He makes woo-hoo “blood will tell” statements such as, ” … she carries within her our very essence.  I daresay she is our essence.”  Hauck is building to her point of making Reggie, the “people’s princess” pure and good, an instrument of the divine, a chosen one (frankly, this view of political leadership makes Miss B. run for the hills).  Her status as God’s chosen is confirmed via Tanner when he encounters a divine presence (as to who this might be, well, it’s pretty nebulous): ” … his piercing blue eyes were vibrant and radiant … [Tanner was] certain that he’d just encountered the Divine … he might have been the Lord himself.”  The divine is a friendly sort, with a special message for Reggie, “He said to tell you hi, by the way.”  Miss Bates thinks that she and Princess Ever After parted ways because of a Christian culture breakdown: MissB. has a lot of trouble imagining an austere Pantokrator shooting the breeze.

To give Hauck credit, however, she does characterize Reggie’s struggle to accept God’s call to be his Chosen Princess.  When Reggie talks to her American plumber dad, who’s encouraging her to take up the princess mantle, she says pithily, “Daddy, my life is not a Disney movie.”  Reggie soon learns that being Hessenberg’s princess has nothing to do with Disney fantasies and everything to do with understanding where you came from and where you’re going, “To value her elders and her history.  Yet what was she to do with a history that brought a truth she’d never known?  One that required her to be someone else?”  Rachel’s response to her dilemma sweeps away all pomp and circumstance and concludes with a more American Protestant resolve, “A princess is defined not by her title alone but how she lives her life.” 

Hauck’s novel, in effect, is confused and confusing: her bent is populist and Protestant works-based, but her theology is conservative.  This stems from her repeated use of unction imagery (Miss B. sure can pick these out of a narrative).  Initially, Miss Bates got a kick out of this reference; when Tanner meets Reggie, after she’s been inspecting under a car, “Dried grass and leaves clung to her mussed burnished hair while a wide river of motor oil sleeked down her face and neck.”  Pretty cool foreshadowing.  In the final, weaker third of the novel, this imagery reiterates Reggie’s role as the chosen.  At her coronation ceremony, she senses, “A smooth, invisible oil … over her head and slipped down to her temples, releasing the thick fragrance of spices all around her.”  In the epilogue, when Reggie continues to fulfill her now sanctioned princess-mission, the unction follows her, “The warm drops of oil continued to hit her head, mostly when she was about some royal duty … she was convinced it was God’s world breaking into hers … this was his journey, and she was just holding on for the ride.”   Note that Hauck both sweeps away ritual and references it, using Biblical imagery such as that found in the story of King David, but rendered “invisible.”  Miss Bates was nonplussed.

It’s difficult to assign a verdict to Hauck’s Princess Ever After because it will obviously find an audience, just not this audience.  It is, however, a humorously-told novel with serious underpinnings.  It just wasn’t for Miss Bates; therein she found no more than “tolerable comfort,” Mansfield Park.

Rachel Hauck’s Princess Ever After is published by Zondervan and has been available in the usual formats and places since February 4th.

Miss Bates is grateful to Zondervan for an e-ARC, via Netgalley, in exchange for this honest review.

Have you ever been nonplussed by a book?  Give Miss Bates details in the comments, please.