British royals exiled to ... New Jersey?
Pity Mark Helprin. His first book in 10 years, a satire starring Britain's royal family, hit bookstores the same week that terrorist bombs ripped into London's Underground. The juxtaposition makes for uneasy reading.
This is not to say that better timing would have turned "Freddy and Fredericka" into a lyrical fantasy on the order of Helprin's "Winter's Tale." The book would still be puffy and kind of self-indulgent. But what was probably intended to be a tour-de-farce on the order of Monty Python (complete with ridiculous names like Lady Phoebe Boylingehotte and Lord Digeridoo - Camilla Parker-Bowles and Rupert Murdoch, respectively), instead feels spectacularly off-topic.
Freddy and Fredericka, clearly modeled on Charles and Diana, have humiliated the royal family one too many times. (The final straw involves Freddy inadvertently tarring and feathering himself during a tennis match.)
In desperation, the queen sends for her ultimate adviser, Mr. Neil (an anagram for a fairly famous British legend), who decrees that the disgraced prince and princess be exiled to "the most unconquerable, savage land on earth": New Jersey. They must conquer America to prove that Freddy is worthy of the crown.
Within 24 hours, Freddy and Fredericka have managed to knock out their front teeth, tangle with a biker gang, and be arrested as criminally insane.
What ensues afterward will be familiar to fans of Fox's "The Simple Life." Freddy and Fredericka embark on a series on menial jobs - cleaning toilets, loading trucks, working as a dishwasher and a railroad spike driver.
Once Freddy and Fredericka finally leave Britain, the novel picks up needed momentum. But Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes did a far more skillful job of skewering British aristocracy earlier this year in his delightful "Snobs."
Fellowes benefited from an ability to parse every nuance of a grouse hunt or upper-class engagement party. Helprin clearly lacks this insider's knowledge - for the first third of the novel, Fredericka sounds more like Paris Hilton than an English aristocrat. You can't accuse Helprin of cowardice, though. Despite the devotion the late princess of Wales inspired on both sides of the Atlantic, his early descriptions border on cruel: Fredericka "though statuesque and golden, was narcissistic in the extreme, astoundingly superficial, and totally uncaring." Then there's the "less intelligent than garden mulch" line. Freddy, although "God blessed the cartoonists the day he was born," comes off rather better.
But in a kind of reverse Cinderella, the princess loves her new life as a scullery maid. The unheated apartments, Cheez-Whiz-and-canned-mackerel pates, and Salvation Army wardrobe are far outweighed by the fact that her prince finally loves her. Also, she finds minimum wage less terrifying than having millions of pounds that she hadn't earned. (Clearly, Helprin hasn't read Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed," but I'll grant him the work ethic.) Then Freddy gets swept up in the presidential campaign of Dewey Knott, an honest politician from Nebraska with an unfortunate tendency to talk in a "Dr. Seuss death spiral." Will events force Freddy back onto the throne, and if so, is their newfound reliance strong enough to last once they've been plucked from obscurity? And at 553 pages, will readers have the fortitude to reach the semisweet end?
• Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.