I remember exactly how I felt after seeing The Princess Diaries for the first time. I was about to turn fourteen and for the longest time, I believed that fourteen would be the year when everything would come together for me. According to all the books I read, fourteen was a time for adventure and first kisses and transforming from a ragamuffin kid into a beauty. The Princess Diaries confirmed all this for me. I stood in the steamy Memphis parking lot after the film, breathing in the muggy air, hoping beyond hope that someone would turn up and inform me that I was actually the heir to a small European principality. The world looked different. I stood up straighter. I love my parents, but in that moment, I knew in my bones that I was secretly adopted.
None of that came true. Fourteen was not the year of first kisses or beauty transformations. Going to highschool did feel like an adventure, but not the swashbuckling, Arctic exploring, jungle hacking one I wanted. Sometime during all these depressing realities, I turned to the book in solace. Since then, I have returned to the book many times. Why do you ask? Aren’t you a fully grown adult woman with a job and laundry and other kinds of books to read? Yup. But I keep reading it because this is the funniest book I’ve ever read.
Now, this might not be the funniest book you ever read. It’s so hilarious to me because it is the diary of a teenage girl and I was once a teenage girl. Also, the pop culture references throughout the book are pop culture references from that time in my life. Fourteen year olds today might not find it quite as funny because they don’t know Britney Spears as a mega-pop star and they have no idea what AOL instant messenger is and why dial-up is such a drag.
The Princess Diaries is the diary of Mia Thermopolis a fourteen year old girl who just started high school. Her life is consumed with the things most fourteen year old girls are concerned with. At this point, her biggest difference from others her age (putting aside the fact that she lives in New York and goes to a private school) is that her mother is, horror beyond horrors, dating her Algebra teacher. The shock of this revelation is nothing compared to the one Mia gets when she finds out that her father is actually the prince, not just a politician, of a small European principality. To prepare her for her role as princess, Mia’s grandmere flies in to stay at the Plaza and give daily princess lessons. Add to this a makeover and some boy drama, and you got yourself a book. The plot may not be original. But the writing is.
I had a hard time resisting the urge to copy whole pages from this book while re-reading it oh, let’s say the eighth time. There were so many examples of things I found funny. I know reading about why a book is funny is not funny. But I went ahead and wrote about it anyways because the book is so damn good.
Cabot wrote The Princess Diaries to read like, well, a diary. Mia’s voice is full of the over-the-top why-me drama you’d expect from a teenager. The diary structure works so well for this because one expects a diary to be more self-involved than a straight first person narrative. To lessen this self-involvedness, Cabot cuts Mia’s melodrama with the voices of Mia’s best friend, Lily, Mia’s parents, and her grandmother. An example of this occurs right off the bat. Mia describes how she saw the cutest boy in school at Bigelows buying cologne. After a paragraph about how Josh is really a sensitive person she explains, “I know because when I looked into his eyes that day at Bigelows, I saw the deeply sensitive person inside him, struggling to get out.” This is immediately followed by, “Lilly says I have an overactive imagination and a pathological need to invent drama in my life.” The juxtaposition of Mia’s over-romanticized vision of this boy and Lilly’s clinical diagnosis balances the paragraph. What Mia says is funny because it’s over-the-top. What makes it more funny is that other characters think this too.
If the book were only Mia being dramatic, then of course it wouldn’t work. Making up the bulk of the novel are the things that make up all novels: plot, character development, and description. Description is another area where the book shines. Cabot excels at describing people and places without losing Mia’s voice. For example, Mia describes the bathroom at The Plaza saying “there are mirrors and little couches everywhere, in case you look at yourself and feel the urge to faint from your beauty or something.” Or in describing the girl on the cover of romance novel – “ The teenage girl had long blonde hair and pretty big breasts for someone with such thin thighs.” My favorite descriptions are of Grandmere’s dog, Rommel. When we meet Rommel, Mia explains that he is a fifteen year old poodle who “is the same shape and size as an iguana, only not as smart.”
There are many many other things to say about this book. There is Cabot’s use of blank space. When Mia finds out her grandmother is coming to give her princess lessons, she writes four lines and that’s it. The rest of the page is blank. There are also times when Mia explains her past naivetee, such as when she thought Frenching was “some weird British thing, like toad-in-the-hole, or air raids, or something.” Or the time she realized her body guard was carrying a gun, not an extraneous third arm. Or… or… or… I could go on.
Cabot has written an entire Princess Diaries series. There are ten books. There is also an eleventh book where Mia is grown-up and about to get married. I am very curious to read this book because, here’s the thing about the other ones if you’re a grown-up: they get old. This book is hilarious because it’s one book. I can remember back to my more dramatic self and commiserate with Mia and her boy problems. I cannot do this for ten books. This does not reflect poorly on Cabot’s writing. I have read a great many of her books for adults and enjoy them thoroughly. All this means is that these books are written for a certain audience and I am no longer a member of that audience. Despite that, in a couple years, when I am trying to find something read and want something funny, I will more than likely pull this battered and taped book from my shelf and chuckle when Mia and Lilly list Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman’s boyfriend as one of the world’s hottest guys.