I don’t usually review fiction, but I found this book so enjoyable that I had to review and recommend it. Mark Helprin’s Freddy and Fredericka is, in my opinion, an instant classic. It is witty and endearing, while seriously criticizing aspects of our (western) social and political cultures. It mixes humor that ranges from the wit of Chesterton to the silly-slapstick of Monty Python, but while the humor is there to grant enjoyment and quicken the flow of this 500-plus page novel, the true draw lies in the wooing of two great beauties—Fredericka and America.
The book is divided into four parts that are bracketed by a Prologue and Epilogue from the imagined author Geoffrey, Lord Piggleswade (its a long story). The four parts of the book are tellingly “The Garden of Eden”, “Paradise Lost”, “Manifest Destiny”, and “Paradise Regained”. In these four parts lies the story of the Prince of Wales (Freddy) and the Princess of Wales (Fredericka)—caricatures of Prince Charles and Princess Diana.
Freddy is a solider and a scholar, a brave and intelligent man, though he is prone to find himself in odd and embarrassing situations. He is picturesque in body, if I were casting a film adaptation I might use a Armie Hammer (The Man from UNCLE and The Social Network) or Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises and Mad Max: Fury Road). The former if I wanted to emphasize his handsomeness and intelligence, the latter if I wanted to draw out his career as a solider. Freddy, by his own estimates, would have made a fantastic king in an era of war, hardship, and struggle. His intellect would allow him to rule wisely, while his strength would be an asset in battle be it literal or a metaphor for political maneuvering. Unfortunately for Freddy, he is prince during peace time, and not only during peace time but also in an age of technology, social media, and instant worldwide recognition. Thus, due to several embarrassing incident that are somewhat easily explained, he finds himself as a source of ridicule in the media and parliament and worry in the royal palace.
Fredericka is a beauty almost unmatched in the world. Born of aristocracy, raised in luxury, and gracing the covers of every fashion magazine in the western world. The supposed to be dull, Fredericka shows moments of astonishing brilliance and nearly photographic memory. Casting her in out imaginary adaptation would be more difficult because of the detail of her description. Kierra Knightly is too skinny, Rachel Weisz is a bit too girl-next door. After asking my wife, who answered without hesitation, we would be calling Giselle to see if she could do a British accent.
Freddy and Fredericka have been married for sometime when the story begins. Freddy has never loved Fredericka, having always loved his long-time mistress (whom he could not marry because of her age and social status), but married her in the hope that her beauty might eventually win him over. Instead he has grown jealous of her as she is the media’s darling incapable of doing any wrong (even when she gives a poorly informed and offensive speech) as she photographs so well. Fredericka on the other did love, and might still love, Freddy. Each in there way is unworthy of the crown and as such they are, in a play of desperation, dispatched to America by a royal advisor. They are, in effect, sent on a quest with no supplies and an impossible task. Freddy and Fredericka are dispatched to conquer America and survive a dragon with only each other, a fake identity, and the cloths on their backs (which most resemble bathing suits).
Paradise is indeed lost. The remainder of the book deals with their quest, their increasingly intimate relationship, and the evolution of their character. Most notable of their evolution is how their budding love for each other leads them away from their selfish desires and into a place of increasingly deeper care for one another. In this process they grow, not just as husband and wife, but as king and queen as well. Maybe they will not complete their quest, but they have, through their struggles, been granted the honor, dignity, and wisdom that royalty ought to have.
The genius of Helprin’s writing lies in the parallel of the reader and Freddy. Freddy admits that he never truly loved Fredericka, she—like crowns, cars, wealth, and power—is just another facet of his position, but in America he falls in love with her. The reader likewise is have his affections opened, but not to a woman, to a nation. Helprin’s writing turns America itself into a character like Fredericka. Both America and Fredericka have a brilliant mind, a depth of spirit, and tender emotional life, but all of these attributes are overlooked because of their great beauty and flashiness. It is only when one gets beyond the superficialities of the places of power and experiences the great cities of New York, Chicago, and San Francisco that the depth of America is revealed. As one deepens in tenderness and compassion for the nation, just as Freddy does for his wife, you notice that what you took for the most beautiful parts (for Fredericka her bosoms, for America her great economic cities) are over shadowed by that which was previously overlooked or considered imperfections. America’s beauty lies in its forests and hills, in the scenery that is taken in from a slow train ride across the country—the places tourist never go.
There is much more I want to write and consider, but for the sake of not giving too much away to potential readers I will end my review here by noting that this is THE best piece of contemporary fiction I have read.
Thanks for reading,
A forthcoming blog on the worldview of Freddy and Fredericka and analysis will be posted later (it will have many spoilers.