Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Book in Hand – Freddy and Fredericka

A few days ago, a colleague asked me what I’m reading these days. Rather than discuss all the books that are engaging me right now — two novels, an exploration of global trade in the 17th century, essays on literary and art personalities in post-Civil War America, book-length analyses of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony and Verdi’s Requiem, and a second reading of Maynard Solomon’s outstanding biography of Beethoven — I’ll focus on the book that our monthly book group will discuss in October, at my urging.

Freddy and Fredericka is a 2005 satirical novel by the brilliant and erudite Mark Helprin (b. 1947), one of my most favorite authors. Freddy and Fredericka are the Prince and Princess of Wales (a very thinly disguised caricature of Charles and Diana). Freddy and Fredericka, who understandably lead isolated, self-centered lives, are always getting in trouble with the press. Freddy is held in general contempt by the British public, while Fredericka’s stunning beauty and magnificent bosom (or bosoms — but I’m getting ahead of myself) distract her fans from her general apathy about her role as the Prince's consort and as the presumptive mother of kings. The general feeling is that Freddy is simply not suited to assume the crown on the death of his mother, the Queen of England (presented by Helprin as a sympathetic portrait of Elizabeth II).
When the Queen finally takes matters in hand, she (with the help of a mysterious personage who might or might not have been alive since the days of King Arthur) sends Freddy and Fredericka on an impossible quest: to re-take the American colonies for the British crown. They are dropped by parachute, penniless and nearly naked, into the industrial wastelands of Northern New Jersey. From there, they must find the means to re-capture America, and figure out exactly what it would mean to do so. In their travels across America, we see through their eyes all that is beautiful and strong and enduring about this country. We also see, through their experiences, the prejudice, despair, economic inequity, and day-to-day struggles that color the lives of so many Americans. The story takes place during the quadrennial presidential election cycle, and naturally Freddy and Fredericka get caught up in the nominating convention of one of the two major political parties, and... well, you must read it, especially now when we are preparing our hearts and minds to elect a new president.

This book is serious and silly, hilarious, outrageous, and deeply touching, and eventually develops into a most miraculous and unexpected love story. You will laugh out loud and perhaps cry, and you will think a great deal about America and the conditions in which we seem to find ourselves.

Mark Helprin’s deep understanding of history, politics, and human nature have once again combined in a memorable story which, ultimately, becomes his love song to America.
Other books by Mark Helprin that I cannot live without:

A Soldier of the Great War [my first experience with Helprin…amazing]
Memoir from Antproof Case
A Dove of the East and Other Stories
The Pacific and Other Stories
Winter’s Tale
Ellis Island and Other Stories

[POST SCRIPTUM: The book group hated it. Didn't get it. Didn't find it remotely funny. Didn't understand the satire. That night was the beginning of the end. I felt entirely disconnected from, and separated from, everyone in that room except D, who did understand the book and my pleasure in it. That night, I lost something...several years later, I can't quite define it. Lost some sort of faith in other people. Hmmm.]

[POST POST SCRIPTUM: I still love the book and count it among my all-time favorites.]


  1. I've come across this author's name previously, but never read anything by him.

    Your comments persuade me to try him. This book seems particularly apposite at a time when the eyes of much of the world are fixed on the Presidential Election, and the choice of the American electorate, with a mixture of hope and deep foreboding. So much at stake for us all.

    Not sure whether the return of the "rebel colonies" to their old allegiance would necessarily be the best answer- currently we over here perhaps have more than enough problems already. But it is an interesting concept, none the less :-)

  2. John, thanks for your thoughts from "across the pond." If you do have a chance to read "Freddy and Fredericka," you'll find that the re-capture of the American colonies is accomplished in a far different way than we might imagine -- more of a conquering by the heart than by the sword. Cheers-- Sarah

  3. As someone with an interest in "alternate" or "counter-factual" history (I'm never sure if they are one and the same) I'll certainly track this one down in my local library. As a former librarian I always try to support it :-)

    I still can't decide whether the world would have been a better or worse place if the split hadn't happened. The UK would now have been the... . what, 52nd? state, now, I imagine ...


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