When the entire British royal family dies an actor named Jack is discovered to be an illegitimate descendant of the royals and made King, a job he tries to fulfill loyally and dutifully, but when the work conflicts with his true nature and his true love, he decides to pass the throne on to someone who can handle it. This isn't a complex book but it's a good critique of the upper classes of British society and is actually pretty funny, despite its overall serious tone. The novel is narrated by Jack, the protagonist. Set in 1930s Britain, in the midst of the Great Depression and before the outbreak of World War II, the British Royal Family all die in an explosion on their airship while trying to dock. This is a shocking blow to a nation already mired in economic shackles, and Jack - a sexually liberal, anti-Establishment, carefree actor in London's West End theater district - is as shocked and sad about the disaster as the rest of the grieving country. But after a play a couple weeks later, in which he performed with his friends-with-benefits/girlfriend Kathy and their friend-with- benefits Bruce, a black Bentley pulls up outside the theater the in the rain and men in coats and bowler hats get out, and stuff Jack unceremoniously inside.
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He is taken to Buckingham Palace, and greeted by an immaculately dressed young man around his age named Willie, who says he is to be Jack's new private secretary, as Jack is now about to become John II of Great Britain and Ireland due to him being the illegitimate grandson of King George's older brother. In turns, Jack meets his staff and the Conservative government, including Prime Minister Baldwin, all of whom are somewhat skeptical of him despite Willie discreetly coaching Jack of matters of state. Jack eventually gets over his shock and is determined to prove his detractors wrong, and takes an unconventional and forthright approach to kingship - he veers from the written script when giving speeches, takes an active interest in the economic, political and governmental issues plaguing Britain, and relies heavily and touchingly on his friendly, protective, and warm-hearted secretary Willie. But this also distances Jack from his old life. When Kathy and Bruce are invited to Buckingham Palace, they are wary and resentful of his new life, and Jack's tactlessness and power display does not help. The visit ends in a fight, and when Kathy and Bruce leave, Jack is sad when he thinks that things might never be the same again, because he misses them very much.
His independent thinking and serious use of his position to try and help the laboring classes of Britain make Jack look increasingly risky to the Conservative ministers and palace officials who sought to handle him and mold him into an agreeable puppet figurehead, though Stanley Baldwin does give his grudging respect. Another Conservative MP, Sir Godwin, urges Jack to abdicate, but instead Jack does his duty by meeting prospective brides - European noblewomen and princesses, English noblewomen - and fighting for the rights of shipyard workers. He begins to notice that he has enemies, when false and damaging rumors about his are circled in the press, and transvestites gatecrash balls, and he suspects that he is being set up with courtesans paid to put him in compromising situations where he can be photographed for more tabloid fodder. All of this wears on Jack, coupled with the restrictions on his powers and freedoms, and the loneliness of the position. He misses Kathy more than ever. When Willie spies on Sir Godwin for Jack, he reveals to Jack that Sir Godwin was behind the attempts to make Jack look bad, and Jack confronts Godwin. Godwin tells Jack that he was never worthy of the the throne and that Willie would have been better - he tells him that Willie is an illegitimate son of Prince Albert, making him Jack's uncle although they are about the same age, and that the throne had been offered to Willie first, but Willie refused. Shocked and introspective, Jack ponders on this information and thinks about how ill-suited he feels as the man trying to set Britain straight, and how lonely it is without Kathy and his old freedom. Jack decides that he has had enough and abdicates, thanking Willie dearly and offering him the throne. Willie takes it, telling him he will try to serve the realm as faithfully as Jack did, and they embrace. Then Jack seeks out Kathy in Soho, and asks her if she will take him back and that he needs her. She accepts, and they leave Britain to go to California, and then later to Mexico, to live off of a government pension and pursue their love of theater, freedom and being together.
Best part of story, including ending:
I loved Willie and Jack's relationship, and I felt that there was an undertone of sexual and romantic tension between them, although the book never makes it explicit. I wish that had been developed further because it was great.
Best scene in story:
I enjoyed the scene in which Jack's mother visits Buckingham Palace and is loud and unaffected and cheerful, and talks about her bad knee and her sewing with Princess Louise.
Opinion about the main character:
I liked that Jack actually felt a serious and admirable sense of duty and obligation to his country, and that's why he accepted kingship - he didn't make light of the monarchy, he really did it out of patriotism (although he made fun of the trappings of monarchy, which is different).