Spare - Critical summary review - Prince Harry

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Spare - critical summary review

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Biographies & Memoirs

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: 

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ISBN:  978-0593593806

Publisher: Random House

Critical summary review

One of the most highly anticipated releases in recent memory, Prince Harry’s tell-all memoir “Spare” sold a staggering 1.5 million copies during its first day on sale, eclipsing the previous record for a non-fiction book (set by Barack Obama's memoir, "A Promised Land," in 2020) by at least 700,000 copies!

Ghostwritten by Pulitzer Prize-winning author J. R. Moehringer, the book offers an intimate and honest look into the life of the British royal family member. It chronicles Harry's experiences growing up in the public eye as the younger son of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, as well as his time serving in the British Army and his marriage to American actress Meghan Markle. 

Delving into the personal struggles and emotional turmoil that have shaped Harry's life—including his mental health battles and his grief over the loss of his mother—“Spare” is a compelling and insightful read, even if you're not a royal watcher. So, get ready to immerse yourself in the personal journey of one of the world's most high-profile public figures, and discover the humanity, vulnerability—and weirdness!—behind all those media headlines.

A hair and a spare

The second child of Prince Charles (now King Charles III) and Diana, Princess of Wales, Prince Harry was born on September 15, 1984, in a London hospital, during the reign of his grandmother Queen Elizabeth II. His father, Charles, wanted to name him Albert, after the boy’s great-grandfather, the husband of the “Grandmama of Europe,” Queen Victoria. However, Queen Elizabeth vetoed the decision, and Prince Harry was christened Henry Charles Albert David of Wales a few days before Christmas 1984. Even so, from day one, everybody called him Harry. The name was probably given to him affectionately by his mother, and, to his pleasure, it stuck for life.

Harry remembers most of his early childhood with fondness. For years he was blissfully unaware of everything bad happening around him. He was a teenager when his flaming red hair launched the rumor that his actual father was one of Diana’s former lovers, Major James Hewitt. Moreover, he was 20 when he first heard the story of what Charles had allegedly said to Diana the day of his birth, “How wonderful! Now you’ve given me an Heir and a Spare—my work is done.” Charles was, of course, jokingly referring to the fact that his firstborn child, Prince William, would be next in line for the throne after him, and Harry would only become monarch in the unlikely event that something happened to his older brother. Well, maybe not even then!

“I was the shadow, the support, the Plan B,” writes Harry in retrospect. “I was brought into the world in case something happened to Willy. I was summoned to provide backup, distraction, diversion and, if necessary, a spare part. Kidney, perhaps. Blood transfusion. Speck of bone marrow. This was all made explicitly clear to me from the start of life’s journey and regularly reinforced thereafter.” Whereas Charles may have made the comment in jest, it was reflective of reality. Needless to say, it stuck with Harry for life. It blurred the memories of his childhood. It left him feeling like he was somehow less important than William in the eyes of the royal family. Well, scratch that—in the eyes of his very own family.

A tale of two August days, one year apart

On August 30, 1996, Charles and Diana, quite infamously, finalized their high-profile divorce. Harry was about to turn 12, so he was old enough to understand what was happening, and young enough to be able to innocently maintain a close relationship with both of his parents. Indeed, despite the tumultuous period—peppered with a lot of paparazzi presence, provocations and plantings—he and his brother continued to split their time between their parents, happily and gladly, all the way to the summer of 1997. 

The first half of that fateful summer the boys spent with their mother, on the sun-drenched sandy beaches of St. Tropez. There—amidst all the laughter, horseplay, and jet skiing (“the norm” whenever the boys were together with Diana)—they met Dodi Fayed, their mother’s “friend,” as he was referred to among the royals at the time. “Nice enough bloke,” Harry thought to himself after meeting him, and second before telling his brother, “Well, as long as Mummy’s happy.” William felt the same. Sadly, it didn’t last long, Diana’s happiness.

August 30, 1997—a year to the day of Charles and Diana’s divorce—was one of the happiest of Harry's early life. It was yet another golden, relaxing summer day at Balmoral, the royal family's Scottish estate, which Harry had always thought of as a paradise on earth, describing it as a magical cross “between Disney World and some sacred Druid grove.” It won’t be long before this paradise would be shattered, however, by the news that would change Harry’s life forever.

In the early hours of August 31, 1997, Harry woke up to his father sitting at the edge of his bed, cheerless and pale-faced, looking, in his white dressing gown, like a ghost in a play. “Darling boy,” he said to Harry, “Mummy’s been in a car crash. I’m afraid she didn’t make it.” “And then, everything seemed to come to a stop,” remembers Harry. “That’s not right,” he goes on. “Not seemed. Nothing at all seemed. Everything distinctly, certainly, irrevocably, came to a stop.” Harry’s happy childhood had abruptly ended.

The other side of the family

After telling Harry the news of his mother’s death, Charles put his hand on his son’s knee, and quietly whispered, “It’s going to be OK.” Afterward, he got to his feet, and quickly left the room. Nothing more—neither did he hug Harry, nor did he stay for some time to comfort him in his grief. In Harry’s recollections, the current King of the United Kingdom was “never great at showing emotions.” Hardly his fault—he was taught to nurture a stiff upper lip pretty much from birth. 

And then, there was also Charles’ time at Gordonstoun, a boarding school, where his parents—Philip and Queen Elizabeth II—had sent him to toughen up. That eventually did occur, but it came at a hefty price. Namely, since Charles was a creative, sensitive, bookish boy, he was constantly and horrendously bullied by “the toughs” at the school. “I nearly didn’t survive,” Harry remembers Charles murmuring once, quite ominously. 

What helped Charles through these challenging times as a sensitive youngster was a simple toy—a teddy bear, to be more precise. He clung to the bear whenever he felt alone and scared at Gordonstoun. In time, the bear became Charles’ constant companion and source of comfort, a reminder of home and safety. If Harry’s to be believed, it still is, to this very day.

Firmly believing that Charles deserves a better friend than Teddy, some time after the death of Diana, Harry and William promised him that they’d welcome his girlfriend, Camilla Parker-Bowles, into their family—on the sole condition that he doesn’t marry her. Even though Charles eventually did precisely that, there was allegedly no ill will in the boys. They just shook hands and wished their father well, recognizing that “he was finally going to be with the woman he loved, the woman he’d always loved.”

Even so, Camilla was for far too long “the Other Woman” in their family, so Harry had “complex feelings” about gaining her as a stepparent, especially in view of the fact that she had recently “sacrificed him on her personal PR altar.” Indeed, both he and William were really afraid that Camilla would be mean to them, “like all the wicked stepmothers in storybooks.” Fortunately, she wasn’t. Despite several rocky moments and a few stormy occasions, Camilla, the Queen Consort of the United Kingdom, eventually became an integral member of the royal family, even if not an especially beloved one.

Teenage years and drug struggles

With the sudden and shocking death of his mother, Harry’s childhood took a tragic turn. The loss had a profound impact on him, and it marked the beginning of a difficult period in his life. Despite the support of his family and the public outpouring of sympathy, Harry struggled to come to terms with his grief and the relentless scrutiny of the media, leading him to make some controversial choices as he navigated his way into adulthood.

True, there were still moments of innocent joy and hope—such as the time when he taught the Queen to say “Booyakasha” the way Ali G does!—but for the most part, Harry’s teenage years were marked by a series of setbacks and controversies. He was repeatedly in the headlines for his partying and wild behavior, and at certain points it seemed that he was on the brink of becoming another tabloid casualty.

Harry was 16 when he lost his virginity, with an older woman, in a grassy field behind a busy pub. He was 17 when, at a friend’s country house, he first took cocaine, by which time he had already been high on several occasions, once so much that he started talking to an invisible fox. Years later, in January 2016, Harry also tried magic mushrooms, after which he begged Will Arnett (whom he couldn’t recognize) to do “his Batman voice” and then hallucinated the bin in the toilet transforming into a funny, talking head. 

The event happened at a party at Courteney Cox’s house, a few months before Harry began dating Meghan Markle. As a life-long Friends fanatic, Harry even fantasized telling Courtney that she was the Monica to his Chandler—but he wasn’t drunk enough to summon the courage. There were, unfortunately, times when he was too drunk, and hence—too courageous. It was only on account of his status and the soberness of his bodyguards that he avoided making an even bigger fool of himself—to say the least.

Not a prince, not a spare

It’s well known that Prince Harry stepped down as a senior member of the royal family two years after his wedding to actress Meghan Markle, which happened on May 19, 2018. However, that was only the second time that he stopped being Prince Harry. Twelve years before that, on April 12, 2006, he was proclaimed Second Lieutenant Wales of the Blues and Royals, the second oldest regiment of the British Army. As a member of the British military, Prince Harry served on two occasions in Afghanistan where, among other things, he performed patrol duties in hostile areas and helped Gurkha troops repel an attack from the Taliban. During his time there, if Harry’s to be believed, he killed no less than 25 “enemy combatants”—a fact he’s neither proud of nor ashamed about. Make of that what you will.

One time, while flying in an Apache helicopter over Afghanistan, Harry felt “totally helpless.” It was one of only four times that he felt that way throughout his entire life. The first time this happened was when he was just a child, and the paparazzi were relentlessly chasing him, William and Diana. The other two times happened quite recently—at Nott Cott, when Megan Markle, while pregnant, was planning to take her life; and some time after that, at a hospital, when she miscarried. “We left the place with our unborn child,” writes Harry. “A tiny package. We went to a place, a secret place only we knew. Under a spreading banyan tree, while Meg wept, I dug a hole with my hands and set the tiny package softly in the ground.”

Just a month or so before Markle’s miscarriage, the couple’s firstborn child, Archie, had celebrated his first birthday. Not long after his second birthday, Markle gave birth to a daughter, Lilibet Mountbatten-Windsor, on June 4, 2021—a year after her miscarriage, almost to the day. Harry helped with the procedure—in fact, he was the one to pull Lilibet, gently but firmly, “from that world into this,” cradling her afterward for a moment while whispering, “I’ll keep you safe.” Not long after they brought the baby home, Markle told Harry that she had never been more in love with him than in that moment, the moment of the birth. She wrote down her feelings in her journal. “That was everything,” the message said. “That is a man. That is not a Spare.”

Final notes

Described as “compassion-inducing, frustrating, oddly compelling and absurd,” Prince Harry’s memoir deserves all the praise and criticism it’s receiving. The book is an honest and raw account of his life as a royal, from his innocent childhood to his struggles with drugs and mental health to his challenging relationship with the rest of the family and the press. 

Well-constructed and compellingly ghostwritten by J. R. Moehringer, whatever you make of it, “Spare” is (to quote the Financial Times) "arguably, the most insightful royal book in a generation.”

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