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Vox Book Club, The Princess Bride, week 1: This book is so freaking fun

The Princess Bride is a celebration of pure swashbuckling adventure.

Robin Wright as Buttercup in The Princess Bride.
20th Century Studios
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Hello, readers. This is a very difficult week. I hope you are as safe as you can be, and I hope that you are finding resources on the rest of Vox that will help you find a strong, constructive response to this moment.

When we came up with the idea for the Vox Book Club back in March, approximately 20 years ago, we knew we wanted it to be a place where readers could build community together. We also wanted it to be a place where they could find an escape from the paralyzing sense of impotence and anxiety that the pandemic created for so many people.

Over the past couple of weeks, the police killing of George Floyd and the police brutality at the protests that ensued have added another layer to the horror and panic that the moment we are living through inspires. They have also added a sense of urgency. There are horrible things happening right now, and you can and should do something about it. Educate yourself. Donate money. And take action to stop police brutality and systemic racism toward black people. Those are imperatives.

You are also allowed to take a break. And that’s what the book club is here for. If you have the time to read a very silly book and get too invested in it, and you think it will help you get through this moment, the Vox Book Club welcomes you. So let’s get to it.

What follows is our first discussion of The Princess Bride, covering the Introduction to the 30th Anniversary Edition through chapter 4.

The Princess Bride is a pure romp

God, the metanarrative here is so fun. Be honest: How many of you started reading this book and then had a moment of panic that you’d picked up the wrong edition and you had to somehow find the unabridged version? That was what happened to me when I first picked up The Princess Bride at a used bookstore at the age of 13, and I read in a state of deep resentment and confusion until I’d made it about a third of the way through and the truth began to dawn on me.

Goldman’s child voice here is so charming, though. The moment where he’s just standing there, waiting for his teacher to recommend a new adventure novel, like he’s a puppy and he’s waiting for her to throw him a stick so he can go pelting after it? Delightful! You know immediately why the movie had to include the frame narrative of Fred Savage’s grandpa reading to him: An enormous part of the joy of this book is watching a little kid just get his socks knocked off by the pleasure of pure story.

And in a lot of ways, that’s what The Princess Bride is about: story, and how fun story is. That’s why the 30th-anniversary edition intro contains a moment where the fictional Goldman comes across Morgenstern’s story diary and learns that Morgenstern toyed with altering the historical facts of his narrative because he thought they weren’t serious and believable enough. Goldman wants you to know upfront that this book is about Fun and Swashbuckling and Adventure and High Romance, and that if you’re not on board with the kind of narrative that will just throw in a giant bird out of nowhere because it seems cool, well, there’s plenty else for you to read out there.

That said, in this early section, we don’t get tons of action from The Princess Bride proper. Instead, there’s a long explanation of all the ways in which Buttercup is determined to be the most beautiful woman in the world and a bunch of descriptions of weird old men coming to stare at her, which to be honest haven’t aged super well. Buttercup is extremely funny whenever Goldman cares to go inside her head (that long sequence where she decides the Countess is in love with Westley because he has good teeth always gets me), but she’s the most underwritten character in the book, so he doesn’t bother to do so all that often. Mostly he just talks about her as if she is a very beautiful and very valuable trophy. And that’s not ideal, especially when you add in the quasi-casting couch scenario with Sandy the starlet in the frame narrative.

But what continues to work surprisingly well is Buttercup’s devastation when she thinks Westley is dead. Their declaration of love for one another is much more satirical here than it is in the movie, but it still lands enough that when Buttercup says that love is “not a pastime at which I excel,” I still buy her grief and emotional numbness. There’s just enough emotional resonance here to support a story of extremely cool adventures.

Speaking of extremely cool adventures: This section introduces us to the Zoo of Death, which eventually becomes one of the book’s big set pieces, although it never made it into the movie (that’s not a spoiler, Goldman tells you it’s going to happen in the intro). It’s such a perfectly bizarre supervillain lair of a setup. Five levels of danger, each themed around a specific ability! Speed, strength, poison, fear, and something so dangerous no one has met it yet! What a Lex Luthor kind of a place to hang out in.

Let’s chat

In this section, I’ve collected stray thoughts and questions I have about The Princess Bride through chapter 4. You can use them as a guide for conversation in our comments section, or in your own community, or start off with your own questions.

  1. One of William Goldman’s greatest strengths as a writer is that the man is quotable as hell. What’s your favorite quote from this section?
  2. The movie adaptation of The Princess Bride is so iconic that I find it difficult to read the book without hearing the actors’ voices in my head. If you happen to have read the book before seeing the movie, what was that experience like?
  3. Fictional Goldman is pretty callous to his poor son Jason, and he uses some pretty fatphobic imagery as well. How do you feel about those sections?
  4. A big part of the satire here is Goldman poking fun at those doorstopper 19th-century novels that have the narrative of a breakneck thriller but will nonetheless stop for dozens of pages at a time to engage in some discourse on the state of Europe or the nature of time or the history of the Parisian sewer system (yeah, Victor Hugo, we’re all looking at you). What is the most annoying of these digressions that you’ve come across? Contrariwise, what is your favorite? I quite like the cetology chapters in Moby-Dick.
  5. What level of the Zoo of Death would be best to be stuck in? I like to believe I could outthink a spitting cobra, but I absolutely would not fuck with a crocodile.

Sound off in the comments below, or wherever you’d like to talk, and meet us back here next week to discuss chapters 5 and 6. And to make sure you don’t miss anything, sign up for our newsletter!