Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Royal Review: Untold Story - A Novel by Monica Ali

Can a novel about the Princess of Wales leaving her life behind and starting over be plausible? The premise is interesting but it's not an original idea, having been tackled before by the book Royal Escape. Unlike that title, which covers the Princess of Wales in the run up to escaping the confines of her royal existence, Untold Story: A Novel deals with the aftermath of that decision.

Like Royal Escape, there are thinly veiled versions of Diana. Although it's glaringly obvious, neither author identifies her by name. Instead choosing to give this 'fictional' princess a new name while using biographical information from Diana's life. In her acknowledgements, Monica Ali even recognizes the authors of notable Diana biographies in assisting her research. Something which serves to emphasize the author's lack of originality in creating the Lydia character.

Basing Lydia on Diana is a blatant ploy capitalizing on our continuing fascination. A truly original, fictional princess isn't nearly as compelling as the real person. Fourteen years after her death, Diana still continues to intrigue. The draw of the novel is the curiosity of what could have been had the choice belonged to her.

The other characters are predictable. Like Carrie Bradshaw from Sex in the City, Lydia's group of loyal female friends include the cynical friend, the naive friend, and the understanding yet frazzled friend. Her male suitor provides the perfect amount of emotional distance, taking his cues from Lydia's needs instead of his own. Only Lawrence Standing, Lydia's former private-secretary, with his dignity and stoicism and the conflicting motives of John Grabowski, the photojournalist, provides depth. Though Grabowski devolves into parody towards the end.

Despite being in the presence of the most famous woman in the world no one recognizes Lydia for who she really is. The effortless star quality she possessed as a royal is suddenly non-existent, making the reader wonder just how much of this remarkable quality was a media invention versus a natural gift. The author attempts to mask this intangible quality by altering Lydia's appearance with cosmetic surgery, voice lessons, long brown hair, brown contact lenses and a reticent personality. The beloved princess has been transformed into a non-descript,unremarkable woman living in the small town of Kensington in the United States. 

As Lydia tries not to dwell on the past, we have the 1998 diaries of her private secretary, Lawrence Standing, to provide background information about how her escape was accomplished. But by 2007, ten years into her new life, it's clear that Lydia has not completely left the past behind, buying magazines hoping to find photos of herself and following the lives of her now full-grown sons. After Lawrence dies, Lydia writes therapeutic letters to him and these serve to mark her progress adapting from royal superstar to an anonymous, mundane existence.

Although Lydia has come to terms with her new life, there is always the risk of someone discovering her true identity. After ten years of living under a new identity, Lydia decides it's safe to stop wearing the contacts, which proves to threaten her new lifestyle when a photojournalist, John Grabowski, recognizes her 'amazing ultramarine eyes'. Grabowski, who photographed the Princess of Wales many times, is, by coincidence, on a short visit to Kensington. After seeing Lydia's eyes and comparing them to old photos of the princess, he makes the connection and decides to go public with the story. And thankfully that development occurs because Lydia's new existence is rather dull. Curiosity about how the other half lives becomes less interesting when they join us.

There are a few implausible points. Having the most famous woman in the world transition to an ordinary existence seems too easy. Occasionally the context of the characters comments/actions is unexplained. But the major flaw is her justification for leaving her children. Renowned for her dedication to her boys, it's implausible for her to leave with just a  superficial backwards glance. Regardless of explanation, it comes across as a selfish and unsympathetic choice. But she pays for it with an existence of constantly looking over her shoulder suspiciously. In the end she seems to have lost more than she gained.

Untold Story is an intriguing mixture of chick-lit and thriller, making it a compelling and enjoyable read.

© Marilyn Braun 2011

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Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

The plot reminds of a recent storyline on The Young & the Restless, where a mother faked her death leaving her 2 kids (one who is less than 2 years old) because she had been convicted of a crime she didn't commmit which sounds more plausible than this book.

Hopewell said...

Reminds me a little of "Princess Izzy and the E Street Shuffle" by Beverly Bartlett