Princess and the pauper

A lackluster speculative tale follows a remade Lady Di, escaped to Dixie

(Katherine Streeter for The Boston Globe)
By Molly Young
Globe Correspondent / June 26, 2011

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Sawdust, oatmeal, flour paste, soggy newspapers, and packing peanuts are a few things that come to mind while plowing through Monica Ali’s latest novel, a 259-page speculation on what might have happened had Princess Diana faked her death and moved to America. In this dreary retelling, Diana renames herself Lydia, takes up work at an animal shelter in a small Southern town, reads tabloids, talks to her dog, and idly thinks about changing her hairstyle. “Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental,’’ reads the standard disclaimer at the front of Ali’s book, with inadvertent exquisite accuracy. It would be difficult indeed to find hints of the charismatic, complex Diana in the novelist’s cardboard protagonist.

To step back a moment, Ali deserves credit for a great premise. “What if. . .?’’ is always a fun question to entertain, especially if the rumination focuses on a potent tragedy, a scintillating meltdown, or both. But fiction that speculates on what might have happened to a famous person or event in different circumstances — like Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America’’ or Joyce Carol Oates’s “Blonde’’ — is not friendly to half measures. Those two authors knew it and wrote with a hallucinogenic and reckless imagination. Ali does not. She seems, in fact, to have progressed very little beyond the book’s potentially lucrative conceit, as though the novel were simply a proposal padded out with enough filler to justify a hardcover release. It’s a puzzling maneuver from the prolific and critically acclaimed author, who has collected nods from Granta and penned the excellent “Brick Lane,’’ which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2003. Reviews of Ali’s foray into spritzy commercial fiction have been so universally poor that appalled British critics can be divided into three distinct camps: those who bristle at the book’s premise, those who fault Ali’s execution, and those who find the whole thing, as Charlotte Moore wrote in The Spectator, “a queasy failure of moral and literary imagination.’’ Ouch.

Ali, of course, has insisted that Lydia is a fictional princess, albeit one whose biographical details track those of the late Di. Where the story diverges is at the point of Diana’s demise: The real princess perished in a 1997 car crash, while the character in “Untold Story’’ fakes her death in a swimming accident, renames herself Lydia Snaresbrook, changes her physical appearance and accent, and relocates to a village of 8,000 in North Carolina.

In Kensington, Lydia goes about her business in anxious anonymity, joining a group of female friends who babble about their weight, dates, and clothing in indistinctive sound bytes. She cooks chicken parmigiana for a featureless boyfriend named Carson and entertains thoughts that seem lifted straight from dime-store greeting cards or fortune cookies: “She did love watching the soap operas, but there was never a drama to match the drama of her life.’’ Is Ali riffing on the real Diana’s heart-breaking self-consciousness about her own intellect by allowing the liberated princess to revel in the tidy and trite? Oddly, no; the prose is an indiscriminate thicket of cliches: “The deeper the darkness, the brighter she shone,’’ another character muses. “Impossible to sustain indefinitely, and I had seen her teetering, finally, at the edge of the abyss.’’ Slack prose is nothing unusual, but it’s hard to conceive of the brainy Ali penning such dreck.

As for plot, the menace of “Untold Story’’ comes in the form of one John Grabowski, a paparazzo working on a book about Diana. By coincidence the photographer finds himself in Lydia’s new hometown; also by coincidence he happens to snap a photo of her and begins to suspect her true identity. A good pulpy mystery often involves an implicit bargain between reader and author: In exchange for a reader’s suspending his disbelief, the author will dole out thrilling reversals and twists. But Ali doesn’t deliver on her half, and readers receive little payoff. Perhaps the inevitable movie will be more entertaining to sit through; at least it will be shorter.

To be fair, crummy books get published all the time, and “Untold Story’’ is perhaps unduly disappointing given the ripeness of the moment for a fresh perspective on the Windsor family after the marriage of Diana’s son Prince William to Kate Middleton. Royalty is a troubled business, and there’s no casualty like Diana to illustrate the tolls of living under permanent public scrutiny. Ali’s befuddling effort, however, is not the place to find insight, and an unpleasant question lingers: Why tell the untold story if you have nothing to say?

Molly Young, whose work has appeared in New York and n+1, can be reached at mollybethyoung@

By Monica Ali
Scribner, 259 pp., $25