This has been a strange year for reading. There are times when I’ve devoured books, and other times where I don’t read anything (except required reading) for weeks. I wanted to reread a series, more for comfort than anything else, and I decided to pick something other than the Harry Potter books, which I reread often. It had been a long time since I’d read the Princess Diaries series, and that’s what I picked.
At the beginning of the Bay Area lockdown, it was pretty difficult to get your hands on a physical library book, which left eLibrary options like ebooks and audiobooks. I decided to listen to the audiobooks, since I’ve only ever listened to the first 2 or 3, which are narrated by Anne Hathaway. The remainder of the series is narrated by Clea Lewis, who is not quite as engaging as Hathaway, but who nevertheless manages to capture some of the breathless charm of Mia’s voice.
If you haven’t read the book(s) or seen the films, here’s the summary: Mia Thermopolis is a normal (white, upper middle class) girl, growing up in Manhattan. She has regular problems like being terrible at algebra and generally not liking her appearance. She cares about the environment and her cat. Her mom is an artist and her friend has her own local public access TV show. One day, her dad tells her that he has cancer and can no longer have kids, making her, his illegitimate daughter, heir to the throne of a small European principality, Genovia. Shenanigans ensue. For 10 books. Basically there’s some major romance and the quest that Mia goes on to find where she belongs and what her purpose is beyond being a princess.
I think these books are still the light and frothy entertainment they were meant to be. The problem is that, unlike when I was 14, I no longer have any desire to be a princess. I also find Mia a little….self-centered. I didn’t feel that way as a teenager. Instead I felt that her problems were as big as mine (or bigger), and I definitely identified with her struggles with anxiety and depression (I still feel like this is the highlight of the series). However, I think that her very narrow world view keeps her from being a really empathetic character, which in turn diminishes my sympathy for her. She’s also frustrating. I have very little patience for her lack of awareness and the way she jumps to mind-boggling conclusions without seeking evidence or using any kind of reasoning. Of course, I feel that way about a book I’m reading right now that was written for adults, so maybe this is just a frustration with this character type. I prefer characters who are more introspective, logical, and self-aware. Otherwise, they venture very quickly into poor-me/why-me territory or are just totally beaten down, and that’s just not that fun.
However, I like that Mia struggles between her principles and her lived experience. This is totally relatable, and it forces Mia to grapple with her privilege–something I wish the series did more. In Princess Diaries IV 1/2: Project Princess, Mia volunteers with a Habitat for Humanity type of program to build houses for a family in a rural area. Never having experienced a wooded, forest environment, Mia romanticizes this experience before she goes since she loves the environment. She learns that this love does not extend to bugs, and not having clean drinking water, and sleeping on the ground. In a real way Mia is forced to experience something very different from the privileged environments that she grows up in and challenges her assumptions about the people who live there. I wish more of the series forced Mia out of her comfort zone.
Although Mia is a fairly liberal and progressive character, you can definitely tell that this series was written more than 10 years ago and that conversations have progressed around ideas of feminism (Mia is a feminist but has basically zero awareness of intersectional issues) and climate change. Whereas Mia is worried about whales and polar bears, today I am worried not only about widespread extinction but also massive forced migration from rising sea levels, food insecurity, massive climate events like fires and hurricanes, the evils of plastic and our lack of real recycling–generally the prevention of a Wall-E level planet destruction. I also feel like Mia mostly helps the environment by donating money rather than on the ground activism, but maybe this is an unfair feeling because she does try to make policy decisions that help the environment and uses her celebrity to talk about these issues.
Reading this series was deeply nostalgic for me, but I have to admit one of my biggest takeaways was how glad I am not to be a teenager any longer. I do not miss how overwhelming all my problems felt. What I’ve come to appreciate about reading is that we (hopefully) come across books when we need them and that not every book stands up to a new phase of life. And that’s okay. Even if one of my favorite teen authors is no longer my favorite author–it doesn’t mean that the experience of reading those books as a teen has been diminished. It’s not that the books have changed or were less good than I thought they were, it’s just that I’m a different person now than I was when I first read them. Honestly, that’s probably a good thing.
Have you reread a book recently? Do you feel the same way about it now that you did the first time? Let me know about your rereading experiences/your thoughts on the Princess Diaries in the comments!