If Princess Diana had lived, where would she be today? In "Untold Story," the latest by Monica Ali, a fictional Diana driven wacko by worldwide scrutiny and royal-family shaming fakes her own drowning. Following extensive facial surgery, she begins a new, anonymous life in a small New England town, complete with a clutch of ordinary female friends and a handsome, adoring beau.
The highest price she pays for freedom is no contact, ever again, with her beloved sons. Then, a paparazzo visiting the town by chance thinks he recognizes her striking eyes and begins the stalk of his tawdry career.
Sounds more like a movie script for the Lifetime Channel than literature, and despite higher-caliber writing, that's what this book is. Even given its implausibilities -- anonymity trumping her children, for one -- Ali might have produced an absorbing read if the incisive descriptions, character development and cultural observations that grace her previous work were turned on full force. Despite Ali's assertion that she wanted to explore "the cost of celebrity" and "the nature of identity," her leading lady is not quite deep or likable enough to do justice to either.
The most interesting voice belongs to Lydia's devoted former assistant, Lawrence, who helped her escape, now dying of cancer. Her love interest, Carson, is barely more than a Ken Doll cutout, and the American friends' dialogue is off, as well (who says "we're hitting the trail"?).
The reader reaches the end feeling empty and unsatisfied, like Ali's Diana and, presumably, the real castle-bound Diana.
By attempting an imagined future for one of the world's most famous women, Ali was perhaps doomed to a lesser achievement before she even began to write.
But with interest in British royals renewed following the wedding of Prince William, perhaps her timing is perfect.