Sunday, May 08, 2011

UNTOLD STORY by Monica Ali, from the ARC (forthcoming June 28, 2011) Simon and Schuster Canada, 259 pages

In a turn grounded in magical thinking, Monica Ali explores what might have happened had Diana, Princess of Wales, not been killed in the car crash in that Paris tunnel in August 1997, pursued by paparazzi as on every other day of her very public private life. What is the price of fame? What would a person desperate to reclaim more than a shred of her privacy be willing to do? Imagine having a secret so precious that you cannot disclose it, especially to those you love most.

The opening caveat, "Some stories are never meant to be told. Some can only be told as fairy tales," is the perfect set up for what follows as you peel back the layers of the death and rebirth of an individual as famous and charismatic as the former Lady Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales, at one time the most recognizable face on the planet.

Using a masterful mélange of third-person omniscient narration, private diary and personal letters, Ali forms a convincing portrait of her protagonist from those whom she has allowed to know her best. In the present, it is April 2007 and three girlfriends, Suzie, Amber and Tevis have opened a bottle of Pinot Grigio and are waiting for their friend Lydia to arrive to celebrate her birthday in one of their homes in sleepy little Kensington on the east coast of the USA. When Lydia's co-worker Esther arrives for the party and explains that Lydia took the day off from her job caring for dogs at the local shelter, the women are appropriately alarmed that Lydia has not shown up. The Lydia they know is always on time.

Flipping back the clock, Ali sketches in the details about Lydia's quiet domestic life in small town America and gestures to her much more lavish and demanding past life through the diaries of Princess Diana's Private Secretary Lawrence Standing, whom we quickly discover was responsible for organizing her "death" and "rebirth" a decade previous. Through his diaries and their conversations, we learn how committed he was to protecting her and how much she literally trusted him with her life. Even when Standing unavoidably disappears from Lydia/Diana's life, she continues to correspond with him in a series of letters that help her to make sense of the world around her.

The stakes are raised when she realizes she is being trailed by a photographer she recognizes from life before, John Grabowski, who through a stroke of extraordinary luck (because she had stopped wearing her brown contact lenses and he matches up images of her world famous baby blues) manages to trail her and capture her new life on film. Yet, Grabowski has his doubts, "for an instant it was hard to believe that she wasn't just what she seemed to be."

What I found compelling about the narrative was how Ali included so much of Diana's vulnerability. Lydia is paranoid, she's worried that she's simply not smart enough, she is especially kind to those weaker/needier, and she is at ease with the broken animals in the shelter, recognizing in them her own human frailty.

Reminiscent of Curtis Sittenfeld's AMERICAN WIFE that re-imagines an authentic sympathetic and fictional life for Laura Bush, Monica Ali's UNTOLD STORY convincingly portrays the possibilities of an alternate ending for a cultural icon who "broke all manner of rules," and "was a gorgeous bundle of trouble." Add this marvelous, heartening tale to your pile of summer reading. It will be out just in time.

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