The Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot
read by Anne Hathaway
The Princess Diaries movie came out when I was ten, and I remember watching it. It was one of those live-action Disney movies that peppered my childhood, since grasping the concept of network television would take another five years. I liked it, as it involved Julie Andrews, San Francisco (I spent a lot of my single-digit years a few towns down), and Anne Hathaway, who, although I did not know it, was probably a factor in my thing for tall dark femmes. (In researching this post, I just learned that Liv Tyler was up for the role of Mia. My allegiances! They are being tested!) In any case, I did have and read the first one or two books in the series, but they didn’t make much of an impact, which made it a perfect candidate for an audiobook for me.
The Princess Diaries follows Mia Thermopolis, a fourteen-year-old living in Greenwich Village with her painter mother at the turn of the millennium. Despite her determination to do high school right (shared by her best friend Lilly Moscovitz), there’s already a couple strikes against her: her height, her hair, and the fact that her mom is dating her Algebra teacher. But leave it to Mia’s dad to add one more: since he’s the prince of Genovia and can’t have any more children, Mia is the only heir to the Genovian throne. That’s right, she’s a princess. How can Mia survive her first year of high school while learning to be a princess from her formidable Grandmere?
The image of The Princess Diaries that pervades pop culture, or at least the ocean of pop culture in my head, involves San Francisco and Julie Andrews, so it’s a bit of a shock to return to the first book and realize that not only is it set in New York, but Grandmere is definitely not Julie Andrews. Think Miranda Priestley (speaking of Hathaway), but French and tenured. And it is amazing. Perhaps it’s because I want to be the kind of old woman who can get away with the stuff Grandmere can get away with, but I love her; she’d be hell to live with, of course, but this is a woman who will rip up your homework if she doesn’t like it, beats up creeps on the street, and teaches her dog manners. This is a woman who has a signature drink. How cool is that?
Mia, of course, doesn’t find Grandmere cool at all, although she begrudgingly respects her at points. Mia, as a protagonist… hmm. I’m in the middle of watching a brief documentary on eighties fashion, and in it, the talking heads argue that the first year of a decade is basically the culmination of the previous decade. I think this is extremely true, and it’s especially true for 2000, since 9/11 neatly severed the aughts in two the next year. So Mia, and the novel in general, are utter products of the nineties. I mean, there’s the novelty of HBO and Cinemax, Leonardo DiCaprio being way passe, Doc Martens, and Mia’s devotion to Greenpeace. But there’s also a certain attitude to the teen culture of the nineties—snarky, withering, and a little bit entitled—that I don’t care for. I mean, it’s hard to feel kindly towards Mia and her friends when they lock the Russian kid in the supply closet for being weird and Mia and Lilly taunt Lilly’s stalker, even after a harrowing encounter with the man. Perhaps Cabot is trying to lean on the conventions of teen comedies, but those conventions are often weird and problematic. There’s also some weirdness with Mia’s privilege; her homework shows that she’s in a beginner French class, despite speaking it well enough to converse with Grandmere (who will not speak English if she can get away with it; so cool!), and she’s presented as just an average girl… whose fabulously wealthy dad bankrolls her family’s living expenses. I understand the appeal of marketing Mia as an average girl, but there’s nothing wrong with her privileges—they’re part of her family situation. Use them, don’t sweep them under the rug.
But all that being said, The Princess Diaries is eminently readable and, well, fun, despite its heavy whiff of flannel and Corn Pops. Mia is at her most likable when willfully ignoring logic to frame the world in her terms—when Lilly points out that her crush smiling at her was probably some kind of brain malfunction, Mia knows it means that he can see into her soul and that they’re meant to be together–and when she’s a bit oblivious to the reality around her, like Lilly’s brother having a massive crush on her. (Plus, Michael watches Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess and spends all his time on his computer in his room, which means he’s a fan. One of us! One of us!) Hathaway’s narration is, naturally, flawless; this was recorded the year the film came out, so it’s baby Hathaway showing off what she can do—her kind handle on Mia, her fantastic Grandmere, and, surprisingly, her teenage boys. Hathaway narrates The Princess Diaries, Princess in the Spotlight, and Princess in Love, before handing off duties to Clea Lewis. All in all, quite fun, and I have to thank Memory for letting me that Hathaway narrates the audiobooks. Although, as ever, I must ask who I need to talk to to get rid of those end pieces of music in audiobooks. Not cool.
Bottom line: Despite a heavy whiff of flannel, Corn Pops, and nineties teen entitlement (and some weirdness about Mia’s privilege and teen comedy conventions), The Princess Diaries is readable, fun, and engaging. Hathaway’s narration is a definite plus. Worth a shot.
I rented this audiobook from the public library.