Untold Story by Monica Ali is quintessential book candy. The story, told in journal entries, correspondence and third person, tracks a Diana, Princess of Wales, who didn’t die in a car crash. This Diana is a woman living under the assumed name of Lydia Snaresbrook in a small town called Kensington in flyover America. She volunteers in an animal shelter. She has a coven of women friends who work as realtors, run dress shops and worry about their teenage kids. She aches for the boys she left behind and the novel peels back petal after petal to reveal why and how she faked her death and left them forever.
It’s a delicious book—fluent, beautifully written, skillfully paced, salted with flawed characters and fast friends. Lydia is both stunned at the unmanageable chaos her public and private life as a royal became and sage about what has happened to her and how she must proceed to keep her secret safe. And then a paparazzo from the old days stumbles across her trail.
It has taken Lydia ten years to confront the raw truth that she will probably never see her boys again. She trusts no one. One close confidant, a former Private Secretary with a fatal brain tumor, organizes every last detail of her disappearance. The two of them are the only people who know the truth. He protects her as best he can—sets up a couple of fake identities and untraceable bank accounts, counsels her through the crazy lead-up to the disappearance when the tabloid photographers and the insatiable appetite of the world threaten her sanity, prevents her from watching her own funeral on satellite television. He can do little about the full-color pictures of her boys walking beside the casket with the white flowers that say “Mummy,” splashed across every front page in the world. She changes her lips, her nose, her hair and her accent. She wears brown contacts for several years to disguise her singular blue eyes. She moves several times, learns to cook and clean, makes friends, falls in love.
The subterfuge takes its toll. Lydia is a warm, magnetic, generous and open person, fiercely guarding her personal information. She adopts a shelter dog but she can’t commit to a man who loves her because she can’t tell him who she really is. She struggles with lifelong demons of loneliness, insecurity and self-harming. She makes her way through a thicket of challenges to a rough peace that is shattered when she recognizes the British photographer who thinks he’s found the biggest scoop of his life in an American backwater.
Untold Story examines the excoriating high-intensity lights of fame, methods of manipulation practiced by famous quarry—Diana in particular, what it means to watch people you love damaged by your own raucous entourage and your own addiction to it, whether it is ever possible to come back, to choose a “normal” life despite the public hunger for every sighting of you.
What if Diana had lived? Who would she be? How would she have survived? Monica Ali’s conjecture is an empathetic portrait—a mash-up of fairytale and horror story, real history and fictional coincidence. You root for her doomed heroine all the way, even as you perceive that she can never really escape the past.
Untold Story: A Novel Monica Ali | Scribner 2011