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Happily Ever After: Reimagining Diana's 'Story'

The publication of Monica Ali's third novel, Untold Story, which imagines a counterfactual future for Princess Diana in which she doesn't actually die in 1997 but instead flees to an undercover life in midwestern America, created something of an uproar in England this winter. Critics questioned the tastefulness of writing about the late Princess of Wales, and whether Ali, who made her name in 2004 with Brick Lane, an acclaimed literary novel that explored her multicultural Bangladeshi-British roots, should stoop to such a sensationalist subject. London's Daily Mail scolded: "This story, all the more depressing for being by the esteemed author of Brick Lane, is one that should have remained untold."

Ali's rather elegant and compulsively readable swan dive into popular fiction is less likely to cause much brouhaha stateside — except, perhaps, for objections to her wincingly generic portrait of so-called ordinary middle-class American life. Yes, it's a far cry from the rich Dickensian characters of Brick Lane, but did readers bat a mascaraed eyelash when Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates wrote novels — Of Women and Their Elegance (1980) and Blonde (2000) — about our most celebrated, haunted beauty, Marilyn Monroe?

"Princesses were always locked in towers in fairy tales," Ali writes. Her princess, driven nearly insane by the media's relentless pursuit, and increasingly paranoid that there's a conspiracy afoot to do her in, hatches a plan to literally swim to freedom off the coast of Brazil. She does this with the help of her former private secretary and trusted adviser, who is conveniently dying of brain cancer — which means he won't have to bear their secret for too long.

Monica Ali explored her multicultural Bangladeshi-British roots in her 2004 debut novel, <em>Brick Lane</em>.
Liz Emerson /
Monica Ali explored her multicultural Bangladeshi-British roots in her 2004 debut novel, Brick Lane.

The hardest part of the princess's decision is leaving her beloved sons; she tortures herself over this, but becomes intermittently convinced that her absence will be better for everyone. As Lydia Snaresbrook, she modifies her looks and accent, and for a while even hides her magnificent aquamarine eyes behind brown contact lenses. After years of moving around nervously, she lands in a nowheresville named Kensington, population 8,000, where she finds a job she loves at a dog kennel, a trio of girlfriends whose conversations are painfully trite, and an earnest, hunky, sweet boyfriend who is an insurance claims adjuster. The trouble is, to maintain her quiet life, she must never tell anyone her true fairy tale of a story — which impedes the intimacy she so craves.

The real story Ali is after concerns the lure and costs of celebrity and Lydia's struggles to figure out and accept who she really is. But the tale that grabs us is a meticulously plotted cat-and-mouse chase between Lydia and an old nemesis, who lands in town by chance shortly before the 10th anniversary of Princess Diana's disappearance and thinks he recognizes something familiar about her "mesmerizingly beautiful" eyes.

By writing Untold Story and publishing it under her own name instead of hiding behind a pseudonym, Ali has made clear her refusal to be locked in a literary tower. She has produced a thriller that's well-structured and engaging — if not much deeper than the swimming pool in which Lydia obsessively works out her troubles.

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Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.