— A certain former British princess has run away from fame and fortune to live undercover in the American suburbs. She’s had plastic surgery, dyed her hair and her American friends know her only as a British divorcee. Sound plausible? That’s the story line of “Untold Story,” the new novel by celebrated “Brick Lane” author Monica Ali.
Inspired by Princess Diana, Ali’s novel is about what might have happened to the “People’s Princess” had she lived through the Paris car crash in 1997. In “Untold Story,” the main character, Lydia, manages to create a new existence for herself, only to find it threatened when a paparazzo from her past appears in her new town, ironically called Kensington.
“I focused on one aspect in particular of Diana’s life, which was her fantasy of leading an ordinary life,” Ali told TODAY.com from her home in London. “That was never going to be more than an idle dream. But I took the theme and ran with it, choosing to write about a fictional princess who goes off and leaves her riches and fame.”
The subject matter is a change for Ali, who made her name with the acclaimed book “Brick Lane,” about Bangladeshi immigrants finding their way in a new culture. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, “Brick Lane,” and her subsequent novel “In the Kitchen,” about a Ukrainian immigrant, have served to pigeonhole Ali in the minds of many critics who expect her to write only about the immigrant experience and have criticized her for writing about a subject deemed too lowly for the celebrated writer.
Ali, 42, the child of English and Bengali parents, grew up in Bolton in the north of England. She now lives in London with her husband and two children, ages 12 and 10. As a kid, Ali says she was a close follower of Princess Diana’s life, and remembers crowding into a neighbor's living room when she was 13 to watch her wedding to Prince Charles.
“There’s this question of what I’m expected to write about overhanging my work,” Ali told TODAY.com. “The press seems to think I should stick to writing about immigrants and multiculturalism. Well, I am also a British woman, and like a lot of British women I was fascinated by Diana. The idea that fame and celebrity are not worthy of examination is complete nonsense. Everyone knows that it’s a big issue in society. Diana wasn’t just in the tabloids; she was in the mainstream press every week.”
Although she died 14 years ago this summer, Diana’s life still fascinates millions of people around the globe. The story of what could have happened to her had she lived is irresistible to royal watchers and conspiracy theorists, and the book has generated much interest, even appearing on O magazine’s summer reading list. But despite the public’s enthusiasm, “Untold Story” has received lackluster reviews.
“Ms. Ali does an engaging job of creating sympathy for her heroine, but she has a hard time making the reader believe, for an instant, that Lydia was once a princess,” writes literary critic Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, calling the book "implausible and preposterously gimmicky.”
The reviews in her native Britain were no more complimentary, with the Guardian calling the plot “unremittingly silly.”
Still, Ali has received many letters of support from readers and fellow authors, thanking her for portraying the fictional Diana with “skill and insight.” Without a doubt, the author, who submitted the manuscript for the book last July, got lucky with her timing: The U.K. release coincided with royal wedding fever and a renewed interest in all things Diana.
Ali is now working on writing short stories and is researching another novel.
“I know that the easy way to make money is to follow the formula of ‘Brick Lane,’ ” says Ali. “People want ‘brand name’ authors and it’s easier to sell a book if it is in the same mold as others I have written. But that is not what I am about. I have to write what I am interested in.”