Caroline Muller’s life is a fairy tale. She doesn’t come from much, but her parents did all they could to help her be successful, and by 21, she was an Olympic gold medalist who held the world record in the women’s marathon. But as Caroline grew up, her body changed—and so did her gait. A misstep while training sent her stumbling, ending her athletic career and landing her in a rehabilitation hospital. There she finds what will become her new purpose: a hulking, handsome man she knows only as Finn.
Finn and Caroline reunite years later, at which point she learns that he isn’t a former hockey player or some kind of athlete, as she’d assumed. He’s Prince Ferdinand Fieschi of Lucomo, a tiny, wealthy European country wedged between France and Italy. And Finn, 10 years Caroline’s senior, is as taken with her as she is with him. They fall fast, but he sets limits: He won’t be intimate with her until they’re married, and they won’t marry until she’s spent 10 days in the castle, gaining insight into life as a princess.
Barbara Bourland’s third novel, The Force of Such Beauty, depicts Lucomo and the Fieschi family’s opulence in lavish detail, from the sumptuous fabrics to elaborate events. But Caroline isn’t a Disney princess, and Bourland pushes past the “happily ever after” of a royal wedding and focuses on what comes next. It quickly becomes apparent that Caroline’s fairy tale is more akin to a cautionary fable.
Caroline’s new royal status offers a remove from even the slightest discomfort, but behind the public facade, she’s depressed. The Crown controls everything in her life, from her friends to her reproductive health: “I was a paper doll. Tabs held my dress on. Hands moved me from place to place.” The daily regimen of exercise, plain meals and evening events becomes her prison. She won’t receive her promised budget until she delivers the throne “an heir and a spare,” and even then she’ll find limitations on her charitable donations—and her husband’s attention.
Bourland draws inspiration from real-life royalty and the fantasies that are constructed for the outside world, in particular the lives of Charlene, Princess of Monaco, Diana, Princess of Wales and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. Rich in emotion and luscious descriptions, The Force of Such Beauty is a careful dismantling of royalty that leaves readers wondering if any fairy tale is worth our desire.