Given the many shocking, bizarre, and, in some cases, downright untoward leaks from Prince Harry’s memoir Spare before its Jan. 10 publication, readers might open the book expecting the kind of tell-all with no literary merit often churned out by celebrities. Headlines about Harry’s frostbitten penis and his physical altercation with Prince William primed us to expect something akin to a Real Housewives episode.
But Spare is filled with lyrical meditations on royal life. The book’s opening evokes none other than William Shakespeare; Harry awaits his father and brother at the Royal Burial Ground at Frogmore, where many of his forebears are buried. The three men have agreed to a parley after Prince Philip’s funeral, a last-ditch effort to resolve some of the family conflicts that drove Harry from his ancestral home.
“I turned my back to the wind and saw, looming behind me, the Gothic ruin, which in reality was no more Gothic than the Millennium Wheel,” Harry writes. “Some clever architect, some bit of stagecraft. Like so much around here, I thought.” When his father and brother do arrive, they wander through the cemetery, and find themselves, Harry remembers, “more up to our ankles in bodies than Prince Hamlet.”
Perhaps Harry identifies with the morose, dithering prince. But in all likelihood Spare‘s ghostwriter, J.R. Moehringer, fashioned the graveyard scene to evoke the Bard’s tragic tale of succession. Moehringer’s impressive writing propels the reader quickly through the 416-page book. It’s a shame that Spare will be remembered more for the leaks about Harry’s wife Meghan Markle and his sister-in-law Kate Middleton squabbling over bridesmaids dresses than for its lovely prose.
Moehringer, a former newspaper reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, has spent years helping celebrities like Andre Agassi share their life stories. (Agassi sought him out after reading Moehringer’s own critically acclaimed memoir, The Tender Bar.) Across Moehringer’s works—or, at least the ones we know about—he manages spill his subject’s petty grievances while still entrancing readers with his writing style. Whatever you think of the content, there’s no denying Spare is unflinching, introspective, and well-written.
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A good ghostwriter is able to extract memories from the subject and paint a vivid picture of those moments. Moehringer has said he tries to capture his subject’s voice, too. “You try and inhabit their skin,” he said in an interview with NPR about the writing process for Agassi’s Open. “And even though you’re thinking third person, you’re writing first person, so the processes are mirror images of each other, but they seem very simpatico.”
The details in Spare are Harry’s. Some are delightfully mundane, like the one about his father doing headstands every day in his underwear as part of his prescribed physical therapy. Others are weighty: it was made explicitly clear to the boys from birth that if William got sick, Harry, as the spare, might need to provide a “spare part”—a kidney or bone marrow—to save the heir. Moehringer, bringing an outsider’s perspective, is able to ground Harry’s personal feelings in the history of the monarchy and cultural significance of his position. In a moving passage, the two try to reconcile Harry’s tangible memories of his late mother, Princess Diana, with her icon status.
“Although my mother was a princess, named after a goddess, both those terms always felt weak, inadequate. People routinely compared her to icons and saints, from Nelson Mandela to Mother Teresa to Joan of Arc, but every such comparison, while lofty and loving, also felt wide of the mark. The most recognizable woman on the planet, one of the most beloved, my mother was simply indescribable, that was the plain truth. And yet…how could someone so far beyond everyday language remain so real, so palpably present, so exquisitely vivid in my mind? How was it possible that I could see her, clear as the swan skimming towards me on that indigo lake? How could I hear her laughter, loud as the songbirds in the bare trees—still?”
Such passages have so far been missing from the rabid press coverage of Spare. There are too many titillating details to keep the tabloids occupied. Since the book accidentally hit bookshelves in Spain days before its intended publication, outlets like Page Six and the Daily Mail have dug through the memoir’s pages for the most sensational parts. The tidbits were stripped of context. But in the book they do serve a larger purpose than spilling the tea.
The anecdote about Harry’s frostbitten nether regions, for instance, segues into a moment of reflection about the invasiveness of the press. “I don’t know why I should’ve been so reluctant to discuss my penis with Pa,” writes Harry. “My penis was a matter of public record, and indeed some public curiosity. The press had written about it extensively. There were countless stories in books, and papers (even the New York Times) about Willy and me not being circumcised. Mummy had forbidden it, they all said.” It’s a rich detail, to be sure, but all the richer juxtaposed next to the fact that a paper of record had written about the prince’s penis long before Harry considered writing about it himself.
The rebellious royal is often funny: He jokes about the frostbite incident in an aside when he writes “my South Pole was on the fritz.” He also proves a surprisingly good narrator of his life story in the Spare audiobook: Harry’s voice is calm yet transfixing. His self-awareness is apparent when he chuckles at a line about his grandmother’s corgis. His insecurities shine through when he admits trepidatiously that William told his brother he only made Harry best man at his wedding because it was what the public expected. It is in these moments that Moehringer’s writing and Harry’s disposition find harmony.
The book is far from perfect. It ends with Harry rehashing stories about who in his family leaked what to the press that he has now shared with Oprah Winfrey and Anderson Cooper and Michael Strahan and Netflix. The constant litigation proves exhausting. Still, celebrity memoirs are usually categorized as “well-written” or “revealing.” Rarely both. Spare, in that sense, is special.