Let's be honest. Nobody thought that a biography of Britain's Prince Charles was going to be the most scintillating book on the planet, did they?
Sally Bedell Smith may not have chosen the liveliest subject for her biography Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life, but she has written a lively biography nonetheless. I don't usually pay a whole lot of attention to the subtitles of biographies, but in this case, I think she's got it about right. Although part of a family known for its stiff reserve and formality, Charles, the Prince of Wales, does indeed seem to have many passions in his life: Camilla Parker Bowles, perhaps, foremost, but also tradition, the environment, and spirituality. Likewise, "paradoxes" is a fair word choice for the duties governing him. Just think about waiting for your "real" career to start as you age into your 70s.
Smith is no stranger to writing biographies about the royal family (her earlier books include Diana in Search of Herself, about Princess Diana, and Elizabeth the Queen, which I've also read, about England's current monarch Elizabeth II), and she is also a former journalist. Her writing's a bit journalistic/gossipy at times:
"Patrick Beresford, a friend for some fifty years, said that whenever Camilla walked in the room, 'your spirits rise, because you know you are going to have a laugh.' For a young prince with downbeat tendencies, that sort of personality was catnip." (p. 67.)
But in all she does a good job of relating the details of Prince Charles's life, and she does it in efficient fashion. This book is 500 pages long, but it only took me a few days to read, and that's largely due to Smith's straightforward expository style, short chapters, and copious quotes from interviews that she did with friends, family members, and former staff members of the royal household.
This review is feeling fairly dry but I can't seem to help it. I enjoyed this book, and I enjoyed learning a little bit more about Charles, but, at the end of the day, he's still a bit of a challenging man to really enjoy spending much time with. By all accounts he feels his beliefs strongly and he's not afraid to let them be known, so that makes me like him. All the same, he also seems to have a self-pitying streak a mile wide, although for that, again, I can't really blame him. His childhood and schooling don't really sound like they were much fun, and just imagine having a telephone call of yours taped in which you confessing to simply wanting to live within your lover's trousers forever (perhaps as her tampon). Having that sort of story blown all over the news might make one, I assume, a bit prickly about ever letting the press know any of your personal details again.
It's a good book. But unless you're a hardcore British royal family fan or Anglophile*, there probably isn't much in it for you. Oh! Except a ton of pictures. Good on Random House for publishing this book complete with two stand-alone color photo sections, plus a photo at the head of every new chapter. Nicely done, Random House. I require my biographies to contain lots of pictures.
*I'm guilty on both counts!