Books

Prince Harry’s Book Is Just Good Literature

I don’t give a fig about the royals, but much of Spare reads like a good novel.

An ordinary-looking man holds the book up in front of his face with his eyebrows raised
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Deagreez/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images.

In Spare, his blockbuster memoir, Prince Harry recounts that during a 2015 interview shortly after his brother’s second child was born, a journalist told him that his gadabout single life had caused some to liken him to Bridget Jones. Harry was perplexed by the comparison, but in the context of Spare, it’s an apt one. At its best, the prince’s memoir reads like one of those popular late-1990s novels about British singletons blundering their way out of solipsistic immaturity into self-awareness and true love: if not quite Bridget Jones’s Diary, certainly High Fidelity or About a Boy.

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To be clear, my idea of the best parts of Spare is unlikely to coincide with the notions of most of the book’s readers. I don’t care about the British royal family and have never paid much attention to their doings—a position that goes all the way back to Princess Diana, Harry’s mother. I cracked open Spare with only a dim sense of its narrative outline: Harry married the American actress Meghan Markle, but racist coverage of the couple in Britain’s tabloid press caused them to attempt to escape the public eye by quitting whatever it was they did as members of the royal family and moving to America. Feuding of the immensely tedious type that gossip columnists adore was involved. What could Spare possibly have to offer the kind of reader who’d rather chew broken glass than have to hear about bridesmaids’ dresses?

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To my surprise, the first half of Spare turns out to be a fascinating literary venture. This is surely all down to Harry’s collaborator, J.R. Moehringer, one of the most sought-after ghostwriters in the business, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter, and the author of his own bestselling memoir, The Tender Bar. When ghostwriting Andre Agassi’s memoir Open, Moehringer moved to Las Vegas, where Agassi lives, for two years, interviewing the tennis star for many, many hours to produce what’s widely considered the gold standard in sports autobiography.

By his own admission, Harry is “not really big on books,” and while he was blown away by the Faulkner quote he uses as Spare’s epigraph—“The past is never dead. It’s not even past”—his first thought upon encountering the lines on BrainyQuote.com was “Who the fook is Faulkner?” The Harry of Spare is a blokey bloke, a man more of action than of thought or words. He prefers outdoor adventure, video games, drinking with his mates. He loved being in the army, the physical challenges of basic training, flying Apache helicopters, and his two operational tours of duty in Afghanistan. He joined expeditions to both the South and North Poles, confessing in the book (to the unending delight of journalists, whatever their pretensions to the contrary) that during the latter he contracted a case of frostnip in his “todger.”

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Books—whether novels or memoirs—aren’t written or read by people like this, and the people who do write books aren’t inclined to devote much attention to them. How to put into words the inner life of someone who doesn’t really reflect on, let alone cultivate, his inner life? Phil Knight, whose memoir was also ghostwritten by Moehringer, described his collaborator to the New York Times as “half psychiatrist. … He gets you to say things you really didn’t think you would.” It’s impossible to read Spare without thinking, multiple times per page, of the intensive interviews that produced it, of how Moehringer must have pressed Harry to recall the sensual minutiae that make Spare feel so intimate. Take this description of the linens at Balmoral Castle:

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The bedding was clean, crisp, various shades of white. Alabaster sheets. Cream blankets. Eggshell quilts. (Much of it stamped with ER, Elizabeth Regina.) Everything was pulled tight as a snare drum, so expertly smoothed that you could easily spot the century’s worth of patched holes and tears.

This shows a literary writer’s knack for detail that summons not only the smooth texture of the sheets beneath the hand but also what they convey about the rigor of the housekeeping and the genteel economy of the mending. (Nothing says old money like the careful preservation of excellent old sheets.) I would also take bets that Prince Harry has never in his life used the term “eggshell quilts” uncoached. The first half of Spare is studded with such details, from the “clinking bridles and clopping hooves” of the horses that pull the carriage carrying his mother’s coffin in her funeral cortege, to the likening of the smooth surface of the Okavango River in Botswana to a “poreless cheek.”

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Men like Harry, who have the opposite of a writer’s temperament and tastes, and who perhaps bullied writerly kids at school, usually show up as antagonists in literary fiction and memoir. Moehringer, on the other hand, needs to make this alien creature endearing. Some choices are obvious, such as organizing Harry’s personality around his grief at the death of his mother in 1997 and his hurt at being relegated to an ancillary role as the “spare” to his older brother’s heir. Other, smaller touches are more artful. For every stupid, bro-ish stunt for which Harry must dutifully apologize (such as dressing up as a Nazi for a costume party in 2005—he says his brother and sister-in-law put him up to it), there’s a mischievous exploit like sneaking into a farm with a friend as schoolboys and stuffing their faces with filched strawberries. Shades of those lovable hobbit scamps Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings!

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And Moehringer largely succeeds at his mission. His Prince Harry is a likable, not-too-complicated dude who occasionally, and rather improbably, gives himself over to wondering if Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII are “floating in some airy realm, still mulling their choices, or were they Nowhere, thinking Nothing? Could there really be Nothing after this? Does consciousness, like time, have a stop?” (On the other hand, it seems more plausible that Harry believes his late mother has visited him in the form of various animals.) Every prince needs a dragon, and Harry’s is the media, specifically the “paps” (paparazzi) and the tabloids who hire them, for hounding his mother to her death and scuttling most of his relationships before he met Markle. “If I had a choice, I wouldn’t want this life either,” he tells himself when he breaks up with a girlfriend daunted by the reporters pestering her and her family.

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It’s possible to feel sympathy for Harry, who never learned how to live another kind of life, without endorsing the absurdities of hereditary monarchy in the 21st century. With his physical courage and old-fashioned manliness, he would have made an excellent medieval prince. Today, however, royalty has something in common with Bridget Jones regardless of their relationship status: Like Bridget, they work in public relations. Their job (as Harry admits) is to use their entirely unearned fame to “raise awareness” of various worthy causes, which further burnishes their own fame. This is what Harry and his family describe as their work, and it can’t be done without the very press that also torments them.

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After Markle comes into Spare, a little past the halfway point, the memoir surrenders its lovely, episodic, ruminative moments to prosecute the many mind-numbing disputes and grudges the couple has with his parents and brother. The British tabloid press behaves shockingly, but even outrage at its flagrant racism could not sustain my interest through long passages about wedding arrangements and housing options. Spare becomes more Harry’s book than Moehringer’s and in the process loses the sweetness and generosity that suffuse its first half. The writing also becomes notably more pedestrian. It left me wishing Moehringer would write a novel about a man much like Harry, a simple man in an impossible situation, seeking a meaningful place for himself in the world. A light novel, a sweet novel, a comically romantic novel. And above all, a novel that ends before the wedding.