Posted in Books

“Playing the Palace” by is weirdly familiar, but not in the way you think

Playing the Palace is a 2021 Berkley release from Paul Rudnick, which follows the love story of Carter Ogden, a perfectly ordinary American event planner, and Edgar, a prince. Their worlds are completely opposite, but their chemistry is undeniable. The only question is whether their relationship will stabilize, or explode.

This book has inevitably drawn comparisons to Red, White and Royal Blue, but honestly, that doesn’t really hold water. The love interest is the crown prince of England, but other than that, there is almost no overlap between the stories. In this book, the prince is out, he’s the heir to the throne, and he’s got emotional baggage and trust issues. Plus, the main character here is a Jersey-born New York event planner from a Jewish family. I loved Red, White and Royal Blue, but Jewish, it is not. This book also just reflects Rudnick’s voice in a way you’ll recognize if you’ve read anything else of his- lush descriptions, laugh-out-loud snark, fiery dialogue. I think that nothing in this book is all that derivative of RWaRB, but it does strike me as remarkably similar to another book, one of Rudnick’s own.

Gorgeous is a 2013 young adult fiction book from Scholastic Press. It follows Becky Randall, a perfectly ordinary American raised in a Missouri trailer park by a single mother. When her mom dies, Becky discovers Roberta Randall’s previous life, as the most beautiful woman in the world. Tom Kelly, a notorious designer, promises Becky that she can be beautiful too, with some conditions. This sends Becky on a breakneck journey to international stardom, which is how she meets her love interest, Prince Gregory.

Here’s the thing: the books could not be more different. Becky is an eighteen year-old girl dealing with the death of her mother and her own insecurities. Carter is a gay man approaching thirty surrounded by family and friends, but lonely for a companion. The tone is fairly similar- both are fish-out-of-water stories, though Playing the Palace is more a comedy of errors. Gorgeous features a magical realism element that is absent in PtP, and it does drive a lot of the plot, as Becky is made magically beautiful and develops a second identity as supermodel and actress Rebecca Randall.

Still, the similarities are hard to ignore if you’ve read both books. The royal families are a good start: The Queen in both books is a curmudgeon, eccentric and a little hostile, although she’s more outright verbose in PtP. There are two princes in both, and while both of the parents in PtP are dead, only the mother is dead in Gorgeous. It is notable that in both books the mother dies in a plane crash. Obviously, some similarities are to be expected in books with royal families based on the House of Windsor, but it wears a little thin here.

The structure of both books is fairly similar as well: love interests meet, there is a whirlwind courtship, followed by a trial by public opinion. There is a third-act breakup, followed by a televised declaration of love, and a wedding. Romance is often criticized for being formulaic, but it’s a little stunning to read essentially the same interactions between different characters, despite different context. There’s a moment in each book where the queen says she is going to ask each protagonist three questions. The prince makes a public speech declaring his love and asking to marry the other person, on live television. To be frank, it’s close to self-plagiarism. It initially just seemed self-referential, I was waiting for Becky to be introduced as the wife of the prince’s older brother, but that never happens.

Even some characters feel as though they inhabit both books: Rocher is Becky’s best friend, and a lot of her bleeds through to Carter’s sister, Abby. Abby is a great character, and I really enjoyed her in PtP, but she’s basically Rocher. She’s unwaveringly supportive, delightfully foul-mouthed, and Carter’s best friend. A lot of dialogue between them could have been taken from one book or the other and you’d never know. I think Abby is an improvement, if only because she has a vivid internal life and her backstory is more interesting.

One of my favorite things about Rudnick’s style is that it is unapologetically bonkers: I’m sorry, but there’s just no way the Queen of England befriends a retired CPA or flies across the world to speak to her son’s ex-boyfriend. But that’s what he writes, and he does it well. I like both books, I just wish they weren’t so clearly imprinted on each other. They are such fundamentally different stories, and the similarities feel lazy. There were two ways to go: the books could have taken place in the same world, as I initially suspected, with the second, younger prince as the love interest, and you can keep the similarities with the royal family. Door number two, the family could have been completely different, and thus the story would have changed along with them.

I like different things about Gorgeous and Playing the Palace, I loved the magic in the former and the Jewishness in the latter. I loved the characters in both, and the writing. But this isn’t a small thing, and it cheapens both books. I’m honestly surprised that this hasn’t been commented on before, given that Rudnick has a couple of books out, and these two are by far his most popular. I have no issue with authors exploring the same tropes in new ways, but it seems like this would have been an excellent opportunity to break some new ground. Both books have their flaws and strengths, but the biggest problem with both is the existence of the other. I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.