Friday, June 6, 2008

H.R.H. (audio book) by Danielle Steel

Princess Christianna, the daughter of the ruler of Lichtenstein, wants to do something important with her life. She's just finished having a few years of freedom at UC Berkeley, where, despite her bodyguards, few people knew her royal background. Now, back in Lichtenstein, she's heartily bored of cutting ribbons at hospital openings, smiling at and greeting adults and children, acting as hostess at balls, or any of the other numerous things a princess does that she views as meaningless and useless. After a hostage situation in Russia gives her a taste of what it's like to volunteer in a crisis, she pouts and sulks (seriously, she does) until her father allows her to become a Red Cross volunteer in Africa for 6 months to a year. She goes "as herself," determined to hide her royal status despite having two bodyguards in tow and her picture in magazines and tabloids for years. While volunteering, she meets and falls in love with one of the doctors in Doctors Without Borders. What is she to do? Her father would never let her marry a commoner and her sense of duty and familial loyalty won't allow her to disobey him.

I did not like this book, and, from what I saw of the reader reviews on, quite a few Danielle Steel fans did not like this book either. This is the first Danielle Steel book I've ever read (or, more accurately, listened to), but I'm willing to give her another chance since even her fans thought this was a stinker. I'll start my discussion of this particular book off by talking about the things that people might like about it. Then I'll talk about things the people (like me) might dislike.

Some readers might like the detailed depictions of life as a member of royalty, or life as a volunteer in the Red Cross. I can't really say how accurate Steel is, since I know little about the lives of royalty or what it's like to be a Red Cross volunteer, but I can say that Steel chose to focus on the negatives of living as royalty (tedium, potential for dangerous excess, loss of privacy) and the positives of volunteering for the Red Cross (finding new friends, gratitude from people you help, beautiful and exotic location). A friend of Christianna's does die while she's in Africa, but otherwise it tends to be an overwhelmingly happy experience for her.

The storybook romance and the slow pace might also appeal to some readers. Christianna's relationship with the doctor develops fairly easily, with the only bumps in the road being her status as a princess - they never fight, and they adore each other to the exclusion of just about everything else. As far as the pacing goes, Steel takes her time establishing everything, from Christianna's reason for wanting to get away from the palace and her title, to her brother's irresponsible nature, to Christianna's blissful experiences in Africa. For example, of this nearly 10 hour book, the first two hours or so are spent telling the reader how boring Christianna finds her life and how much she longs for the freedom to be herself.

There isn't really a bad guy in this book. Christianna loves her family very much, so much that it pains her when her love for the doctor conflicts with the duty she feels she owes her family. At 34, 10 years older than Christianna, Christianna's brother acts as irresponsibly as someone half his age and is probably the least likable character, whether you like the book as a whole or not. Most of the weight of responsiblity that Christianna feels is due to her near certain knowledge that her brother won't be able to rule their country without help - she has to be there for him and know what needs to be done to run the country, because he doesn't know and doesn't really care to learn. He does have reasons for his behavior, though. He feels as trapped by his status as Christianna does, and he deals with it by spending lots of money, drinking, doing drugs, and sleeping with lots of women. Christianna thinks her father's restrictiveness is unreasonable, but a lot of his restrictiveness is due to his love for her as her father, a promise he made to his dead wife, and his awareness of the importance of the duties of royalty. There is nothing about the doctor Christianna falls for that could in any way be considered bad - he's understanding, patient, kind, and romantic.

Steel is vague about anything that might cause readers distress. For instance, the sex scenes between Christianna and Parker (the doctor) are literally one sentence long, with no further description: "they made love." Although several people die, those deaths also lack detail. Either there are no bodies, bodies aren't described, or nothing more is mentioned besides some blood. This lack of detail might appeal to some, but others might see it as a drawback, since even a little more detail could've increased the emotional impact of several important scenes.

Now for the things that might not appeal to readers. The repetitiveness of the writing is a big potential turn-off. I think Steel's editor must've been asleep, or he or she would have done something about the sentences and phrases that are repeated, word for word, throughout the book. It almost seems as though Steel took a much shorter novel and punched up her page count by using her word processor's cut-and-paste tool.

The simplicity of the characters may also be a problem for some readers. Many, if not all, of the characters don't have much more to them besides the basic character traits Steel brings up over and over again. For instance, Christianna is beautiful, elegant, kind, and humble. If Steel is to be believed, she glows with saintliness and all anger and ugliness melts before her. Her pouting and sulking is the only thing that makes her human, and even that tends to be more annoying than intriguing. There's not much to Parker, either - he's nice, he's a good doctor, and he's tall, blond, and blue-eyed, a perfect storybook match to Christianna's small, blond, blue-eyed gorgeousness (Christianna is so small she frequently gets described as child-like, much like Hannah Howell's character in her short story in the Eternal Lover anthology). The African people are all gorgeous, gentle, sweet, and smiling - Steel mentions different tribe names, but this is only a token effort at making it seem like she didn't view Africa and its people as an amorphous whole, rather than as separate countries and people with differing cultures and environments.

Another thing that might bother some readers is Christianna's "it's only possible to be useful in a crisis" view on volunteering. There are plenty of things she can do and does do in her own country that probably make a huge difference to the people involved - even Christianna admits this at one point. However, she wants to go "where the action is," leaving her duties to her country behind and helping people in Africa instead. Some of the things she does in Africa she could probably also do for the people in her own country, but apparently that's not interesting or useful enough. Her father is correct when he says that someone might realize who she is and kidnap her while she's in Africa - she is a liability for the Red Cross and could potentially be used against her own country. Her brother may be irresponsible in the sense that he parties a lot and avoids attending to her duties, but Christianna uses volunteer work in order to be irresponsible in her own way.

I listened to the OverDrive e-audio version of this book - I thought the reader, Jay O'Sanders, was okay, but a bit of an odd choice for a book in which a woman, Christianna, is the most important character. When a male manages to do a good job with a romance novel, or something like a romance novel, it is generally because the male lead's perspective accounts for a decent amount of the book, and it's nice to hear a male voice read something like that. H.R.H., however, was rarely from Parker's perspective - the reader gets to hear more of Christianna's father's thoughts than Parker's.

If you read this book and enjoyed it, or if you read it and want to read something else that handles some of the same issues or character types in a better way, take a look at these read-alikes.

  • The Royal Mess (book) by MaryJanice Davidson - This is actually the third book in the Alaskan Royal Family series (yes, you read that right - it's an alternate universe in which Alaska is its own country and has a royal family, albeit a strange one). It really does help to read the books in order, since characters in later books refer to events in earlier books, but you can probably get by okay with whatever order you read them in. If you want to read them in order, start with The Royal Treatment. The Royal Mess, my favorite book in the series and one with the same "I can't marry you, I'm not royal" theme found in H.R.H., focuses on the developing romance between bodyguard Jeffrey Rodinov and Princess Nicole Krenski. Although Jeffrey's insistence that a relationship between him and the princess isn't possible seems a little far-fetched, considering what the royal family is like (the King swears and is perfectly at home in flannel), it's still a nice read. Whether or not H.R.H.'s presentation of royalty and their behavior and thoughts is realistic, I'm fairly certain it's more realistic than the Alaskan Royal Family series. The theme is the biggest thing this book has in common with H.R.H. - the entire series is funny, silly, and sometimes sweet, and the sex is a bit more graphic than in H.R.H.
  • Kabul Beauty School (book) by Deborah Rodriguez - Deborah Rodriguez decides to open the Kabul Beauty School in the hopes of both improving the quality of haircare in Afghanistan and giving women the opportunity to begin their own very female businesses and maybe become more self-sufficient (quite a feat in a patriarchal culture). This non-fiction book is not only about the challenges of establishing the school and overcoming cross-cultural issues, it's also about the stories of the people, mainly women, that Rodriguez met. Considering that Rodriguez is telling stories about real people whose lives could really be damaged by the things she reveals, some of the stories may seem better left untold. For instance, early on in the book Rodriguez tells the story of helping a friend of hers fake her virginity on her wedding night, and there's no indication (at least in my OverDrive audio copy - which, by the way, had a great reader, Bernadette Dunne) that she has either gotten permission to tell this story or that she has done anything to obscure this woman's identity. However, it's still an interesting book that may appeal to readers who liked the Red Cross volunteering aspects of H.R.H., and some (including myself) may also appreciate that Rodriguez seems very human, rather than perfect and selfless as a saint - I only hope no one was hurt in any way by the book's contents.
  • Winds of Fate (book) by Mercedes Lackey - The kingdom of Valdemar is under threat, and the only way it can be protected is with magic - and no one there has been trained in the use of magic for generations. Elspeth, the future queen of Valdemar, and her friend, the Herald Skif, leave their home in order to find someone who can train Elspeth to use her budding magical abilities. This is the first book in a trilogy set in Lackey's world of Valdemar - certain details will be clearer if you've read other books in the series. Elspeth is first introduced as a child in Arrows of the Queen, the first book in the Arrows trilogy (or the Heralds of Valdemar series, whatever you want to call it), and the events that lead to the lack of trained mages in Valdemar occur in the Last Herald Mage trilogy, which begins with Magic's Pawn. Readers who don't mind fantasy and want something with a royal character and a little romance might like Winds of Fate and the other two books in the trilogy. Elspeth is a good character who feels strongly about saving her kingdom and protecting the people she loves, but she's also a very human-feeling character who falls in love and whose royal status frustrates her at times (to a much lesser degree than Christianna).
  • Luring a Lady (book) by Nora Roberts - I believe Luring a Lady was originally published in the early '90s, but it's still a good book. Sydney Hayward isn't a royal, but she does come from a wealthy background. After her grandfather dies, she is put in control of his corporation and finds herself having to deal with Mikhail Stanislaski, a fiery Ukrainian man who holds her responsible for the poor condition of the Hayward building he lives in. Despite the fact that everyone around her expects her to delegate her work in the company to someone else and go back to being a social butterfly, Sydney's taking her new job seriously and makes Mikhail's building her pet project. Along the way, she starts to fall in love with him and everyone in his close-knit family, and he begins to see there's more to her than her ice princess exterior lets on. Readers who liked the "romance across societal boundaries" aspect of H.R.H., plus the main character who wants to do more than her family expects of her, may like Luring a Lady. The sex in the book, while vague, is not as vague as the sex in H.R.H., so keep that in mind.

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