What if Princess Diana hadn’t died? Diana’s life and marriage were fairy tale and nightmare rolled into one. Adored by millions, in her personal life she suffered rejection, heartbreak, and betrayal. Surrounded by glamour and glitz and the constant attention of the press, she fought to carve a meaningful role for herself in helping the needy and dispossessed. Had she lived, what direction would her life have taken? How would she have matured into her forties and beyond?
Untold Story is about the nature of celebrity, the meaning of identity, and finding one’s place in the world. Like Diana, the fictional heroine of this novel is both icon and iconoclast. She touches many millions of lives and hearts around the world, sharing the details of her troubled marriage and her eating disorder, and reaching out as has no other royal before her. But she is troubled and on the brink of disaster. Will she ever find peace and happiness, or will the curse of fame be too great?
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About the Author
Date of Birth:October 20, 1967
Place of Birth:Dhaka, Bangladesh
Education:B.A. with Honors, Oxford, 1989
Read an Excerpt
Some stories are never meant to be told. Some can only be told as fairy tales.
Once upon a time three girlfriends threw a little party for a fourth who had yet to arrive by the time the first bottle of Pinot Grigio had been downed. Walk with me now across the backyard of the neat suburban house, in this street of widely spaced heartlands, past the kid’s bike and baseball bat staged just so on the satin green lawn, up to the sweet glow of the kitchen window, and take a look inside. Three women, one dark, one blonde, the third a redhead—all in their prime, those tenuous years when middle age is held carefully at bay. There they are, sitting at the table, innocent of their unreality, oblivious to the story, naively breathing in and out.
“Where is Lydia?” says Amber, the blonde. She is a neat little package. Delicate features, Peter Pan collar dress, French tip manicure. “Where the heck can she be?”
“We holding off on the sandwiches, right?” says Suzie, the dark-haired friend. She didn’t have time to get changed before she came out. There is a splash of Bolognese sauce on her T-shirt. She made it in a hurry and left it for the kids and babysitter to eat. “These reduced-calorie Ruffles? Forget it, not going there.” She pushes the bowl of chips away.
“Should I call her again?” says Amber. “I left three messages already.” She closed up her clothing store an hour early to be sure to get everything ready on time.
The redhead, Tevis, takes a small phallus-shaped crystal out of her pocket and sets it on the table. She says, “I had a premonition this morning.”
“You see a doctor about that?” Suzie, in her favorite khaki pants and stained T-shirt, sits like a man, right ankle on left knee. She gives Amber a wink.
“You guys can mock all you want,” says Tevis. She has come straight from work. In her pantsuit, with her hair in a tight bun, pursing her lips, she looks close to prim—the opposite of how she would want to be seen.
“We’re not mocking,” says Amber. “Was it about Lydia?”
“Not specifically,” says Tevis in a very Tevis way. She cups her hands above the stone.
“You carry that around with you?” says Suzie. Her hair is aubergine dark, a hint of purple, and has that freshly colored shine. She plucks a carrot out of the refrigerator and peels it directly onto the table that has been laid with the pretty crockery, hand-painted red and pink roses, fine bone china cups and saucers with handles so small they make you crook your little finger, just like a real English high tea. “Don’t worry, I’m clearing this up.”
“You better,” says Amber, but she reaches across and scoops up the peelings herself. If Lydia walks in that second everything has to look right. She feels guilty about packing Serena and Tyler off to friends’ houses when they’d wanted to stay and say happy birthday to Lydia. Wouldn’t Lydia have preferred to see the children rather than have everything arranged just so? Amber tucks her hair behind her ears and pulls a loose thread from her sleeve. “Please say it wasn’t about her.”
“Jeez Louise,” says Suzie. “She’ll be working late. You know how she loves those dogs.”
“Why isn’t she answering her phone?” says Amber.
“I didn’t wrap her present. Think she’ll mind?” Suzie snaps off the end of the carrot with her front teeth. The teeth are strong and white but irregular; they strike an attitude.
“I’m not trying to worry anyone,” says Tevis. She puts the crystal back in the pocket of her tailored jacket. She is a Realtor and has to look smart. It’s not who she is. It’s what she does. As she herself has pointed out many times. But this is a town full of skeptics, people who buy into all that bricks-and-mortar-and-white-goods fandango instead of having their chakras cleansed.
“Seriously,” says Suzie, “you’re not.” She loves Tevis. Tevis has no kids so you talked about other stuff. Suzie has four kids and once you’d talked about those and then talked about the other moms’ kids, it was time to head home and pack sports gear for the following day. Tevis being childless meant you felt a bit sorry for her, and a bit jealous. Probably the same way she felt about you. She could be dreamy, or she could be intense, or some strange combination of the two. And she was fun to tease.
“Remember what happened last time?” says Tevis.
“Last time what? You had a premonition? Is it about Lydia or not?” Amber, she is pretty sure, knows Lydia better than the others do. She got friendly with her first, nearly three years ago now.
“I don’t know,” says Tevis. “It’s just a bad feeling. I had it this morning, right after I got out of the shower.”
“I had a bad feeling in the shower this morning,” says Suzie. “I felt like I was going to eat a whole box of Pop-Tarts for breakfast.”
“How late is she anyway? God, an hour and a half.” Amber looks wistfully at the silver cake forks fanned out near the center of the table. They were nearly black when she found them in the antiques store over on Fairfax, but have cleaned up beautifully.
“And guess what,” said Suzie. “I did. The whole freakin’ box.”
Tevis takes off her jacket. “The air always gets like this before a thunderstorm.”
“What?” says Suzie. “It’s a beautiful evening. You’re not in Chicago anymore.”
“I’m just saying,” says Tevis. She fixes Suzie a stare.
“Come on, Tevis, don’t try to creep us out.” The cucumber sandwiches are beginning to curl at the edges. It is kind of dumb, Amber knows it, to have English high tea at seven in the evening. More like eight thirty now.
“Yeah, let’s just hear it, girl, the last time you had a premonition . . .” Suzie begins at her usual rat-a-tat pace, but suddenly tails off.
“So you do remember,” says Tevis. She turns to Amber. “Please try not to be alarmed. But last time I had a premonition was the day Jolinda’s little boy ran out in the street and got hit by the school bus.”
“And you saw that? You saw that ahead of time?”
Tevis hesitates a moment, then scrupulously shakes her head. “No. It was more like a general premonition.”
“And that was—what?—two years ago? How many you had since then?” Amber, her anxiety rising, glances at the Dundee cake, enthroned on a glass stand as the table’s centerpiece. It is mud brown and weighs a ton. Lydia mentioned it one time, a childhood favorite, and Amber found a recipe on the Internet.
“None,” says Tevis, “until today.”
“You never get a bad feeling in the mornings?” says Suzie. “Man, I get them, like, every day.”
Amber gets up and starts washing the three dirty wineglasses. She has to do something and it’s all she can think of except, of course, calling Lydia again. But when Lydia strides through the door, that swing in her hips, that giggle in her voice, Amber doesn’t want to feel too foolish. “Damn it, I’m calling again,” she says, drying her hands.
“There’s no reason why it should be to do with Lydia,” says Tevis, but the more she says it, the more certain she feels that it is. Only a couple of days ago, Lydia came over and asked for the tarot cards, something she had always refused before. Tevis laid the cards out on the mermaid mosaic table but then Rufus wagged his tail and knocked two cards to the floor. Lydia picked them up and said, “Let’s not do this,” and shuffled all the cards back into the deck. Tevis explained that it wouldn’t matter, that to deal the cards again would not diminish their power. “I know,” Lydia said, “but I’ve changed my mind. Rufus changed it for me. He’s very wise, you know.” She laughed, and though her laugh contained, as usual, a peal of silver bells, it also struck another note. Lydia was intuitive, she knew things, she sensed them, and she had backed away from the cards.
“Absolutely no reason,” Tevis repeats, and Suzie says, “It’s probably nothing at all,” which sounds like words of comfort and makes the three of them uneasy that such comfort should be required.
Amber tosses her cell phone onto a plate. Lydia’s phone has gone to voice mail again and what’s the point in leaving yet another message? “Maybe she took Rufus on a long walk, lost track of time, forgot to take her phone.” She knows how lame it sounds.
“She could’ve got the days mixed,” says Suzie, without conviction.
“Suzie, it’s her birthday. How could she get the days mixed? Anyway she called this morning and said see you at seven. There’s no mix-up, she’s just . . . late.” Lydia had sounded distracted, it was true. But, thinks Amber, she has frequently seemed distracted lately.
“What the . . .” says Suzie.
“I told you,” says Tevis. “Hail.”
“What the . . .” says Suzie again, and the rest of her sentence is lost in the din.
“Come on,” shouts Amber, racing for the front door. “If she arrives right now we’ll never hear the bell.”
* * *
They stand outside on the front deck and watch the hail drum off Mrs. Gillolt’s roof, snare sideways off the hood of Amber’s Highlander, rattle in and out of the aluminum bucket by the garage. The sky has turned an inglorious dirty purple, and the hail falls with utter abandon, bouncing, colliding, rolling, compelling in its unseemliness. It falls and it falls. The hail is not large, only dense, pouring down like white rice from the torn seam above. “Oh my God,” screams Amber. “Look at it,” Suzie screams back. Tevis walks down the steps and plants herself on the lawn, arms held wide, head tilted back to the sky. “Is she saying a prayer?” yells Suzie, and Amber, despite the tension, or because of it, starts to laugh.
She is laughing still when a car pulls off the road; the headlights seem to sweep the hail, lift it in a thick white cloud above the black asphalt driveway, and spray it toward the house. Tevis lets her arms drop and runs toward the car, her Realtor’s cream silk blouse sticking to her skinny back. The others run down too. It must be Lydia, although the car is nothing but a dark shape behind the lights.
When Esther climbs out of the front seat, clutching a present to her chest, they embrace her in an awkward circle of compensation that does little to conceal their disappointment.
* * *
Back in the kitchen, Amber sets another place at the table. Esther brushes hail from her shoulders, unpins her bun, and shakes a few hailstones out of her long gray hair. “Forgot I was coming, didn’t you?” she says, her tone somewhere between sage and mischievous.
“No!” says Amber. “Well, yes.”
“That’s what happens to women,” says Esther. “We reach an age where we get forgotten about.” She doesn’t sound remotely aggrieved.
Amber, through her cloud of embarrassment and anxiety, experiences a pang for what lies ahead, fears, in fact, that it has already begun, at her age, a divorcée the rest of her life. She gathers herself to the moment. “The thing is, we’ve all been a bit worried about Lydia. Has she been working late? She’s not answering her phone.”
“Lydia took the day off,” says Esther. “You mean she’s not been here?”
Nobody answers, as Esther looks from one to the next.
“We should drive over to the house,” says Suzie.
“Wait until the hail stops,” says Tevis.
“We can’t just sit here,” says Amber.
They sit and look at each other, waiting for someone to take charge.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Untold Story includes discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Monica Ali. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
- Monica Ali begins the novel with an intriguing pair of lines: “Some stories are never meant to be told. Some can only be told as fairy tales.” What do you think these lines mean? Why did Ali choose to open her novel in this way?
- Though the description on the book cover—not to mention certain details of the plot—make it clear that Untold Story is “inspired by Princess Diana,” why do you think Ali chose never to use Diana’s name—or the names of her family or friends—anywhere in the book?
- In Chapter 4, Ali introduces the diaries of Lawrence Standing, whom the reader comes to understand served as Lydia’s secretary when she was princess and helps her orchestrate her escape into a new life. Now, he reveals in his diary, that he is dying of a brain tumor. What is the function of Lawrence in this plot? How does his perspective add to your understanding of Lydia?
- In Lawrence’s diary, he writes of Lydia as princess: “Time after time, over the years, she had come out of darkness (of her husband’s betrayal, of her bulimia, of numerous scandals) and dazzled the world. The deeper the darkness, the brighter she shone. Impossible to sustain indefinitely…” (p 26) How do you take this explanation for Lydia’s decision to escape her royal life? Do you think the real-life Diana would ever have contemplated such a radical choice? Why or why not?
- Ali presents Carson as a seemingly perfect guy—game for chopping down trees, a “darn good listener,” and more than willing to buy ballet tickets to please his girlfriend. Lydia, however, remains cautious. Why?
- “What do they imagine I’m going to do all alone in these empty rooms?” Lydia (as the princess) asks Lawrence. (p. 26) What portrait of royal life emerges in the book? Does Lydia’s “suffering” as princess seem justified to you?
- Of all the places in the world to where Lydia could have escaped, she chose middle America. Why? What qualities of small town America benefit Lydia’s ability to make a life for herself there? In what way does Lydia realize “she’d been wrong about this country”? (p. 69)
- Rather than disregard entirely the true events of Diana’s fatal accident in the Paris tunnel in 1997, Ali includes mention of a “Near-Fatal Car Crash” in Paris. (p. 90) Why do you think Ali chose to transform that incident for the novel?
- How would you describe the way Ali portrays Lydia’s feelings toward her sons? How do her feelings compare to those of Carson towards Ava?
- Lydia tells Esther that she was “never one for dogs” when she was younger. (p. 98) Why do you think Ali makes dogs so central to Lydia’s life now—with Rufus and her job at the dog shelter?
- In chapter 16, Lydia’s letters reveal the course of her first year in America. What mistakes does she make in her new life? Why is it difficult for Lydia to settle in one place? How is she different once she reaches Kensington?
- Grabowski wonders why anyone “would voluntarily incarcerate themselves in such tedium” by living in Kensington. (p. 152) But does Lydia find Kensington dull? What do her friends—Amber, Suzie, Esther, and Tevis—offer to Lydia that was, perhaps, absent in her previous life?
- Ali presents Grabowski as a morally conflicted character. “Was he going to do this to her?” he asks himself, as he considers whether to expose Lydia. (p. 193) How do you feel about the role paparazzi play in covering the behavior of celebrities? Do you think Grabowski’s moral uncertainty is realistic? Compare Grabowski’s willingness to expose Lydia with the reaction of Lydia’s friends when she asks them for help.
- What do you think happens to Lydia at the end of the novel?
- In an essay in the British newspaper The Daily Mail, Ali writes that “Diana was not only the supreme icon, she was the supreme iconoclast. Untold Story is my salute to her.” After finished the novel, how do you view Ali’s decision to write a “what if” story inspired by Diana?
Enhance Your Book Club
- Using clues from the novel (e.g. North Carolina, Mark Twain’s home, the Mississippi), try to trace Lydia’s route through the U.S. on a map. Then, allow each member of the group to reveal their own fantasy “escape.” If you were forced to live incognito in a foreign country, where would you choose?
- Turn your book club meeting into a tea party. Serve cucumber or cream cheese sandwiches, scones, and fruit. Look online for more menu ideas.
- Read another novel inspired by a famous person, such as Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife or Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde. Why do you think novelists find it so fascinating to take their fiction inside the mind of a character culled from real life?
A Conversation with Monica Ali
Why did you choose to write a novel inspired by Princess Diana?
Like all British women of my generation I grew up with Diana in the background. I was thirteen when I watched her wedding to Prince Charles. I followed her evolution over the years into a global superstar. She was a lightening rod for so many different issues. Her appeal was extraordinarily wide, and you could see that in the crowds that gathered after her death—young and old, male and female, gay and straight, every color, every race, every creed. Some people didn’t like her at all, and accused her of being manipulative, of bringing her troubles on herself. To those people she will always be the patron saint of the self-obsessed.
I didn’t see her that way. The more I read about her, the more I admired her. When she got engaged she was nineteen years old, a virgin, uneducated, intellectually and emotionally insecure, with a troubled family background and eating disorders. She was supposed to be like a lamb to the slaughter. She was meant to put up and shut up about everything. But she turned out to be tougher than anyone had imagined possible. She didn’t just curl up and die; she took her own suffering and used it to reach out to others. People responded to that. She could be headstrong and reckless at times, and she certainly didn’t follow the rules. I liked that about her.
Explain what you mean when you call Untold Story a “fairy tale.”
It is a fairy tale, as it says at the beginning of the book! My initial idea had been for a short story—what if Diana hadn’t died, what would she have been like in her 40s? But when I started reading up about her in earnest I honed in on one particular aspect—the fantasy Diana had of living an ordinary life. For her that could never have been anything more than an idle dream. But what I decided to do was to write about a fictional princess, Lydia, who does leave fame and fortune behind and go off to live this ordinary life. It stands the traditional fairy tale on its head. An Unhappy Princess who turns into a more contented Cinderella.
What drew you to set the novel in Midwestern America?
Partly I took my cue from Diana’s fantasies. She talked of moving abroad as a possible way of escaping some of the circus that surrounded her. She always felt welcome in the States, and viewed the country (incorrectly), as somewhere there was no Establishment—having aroused the disapproval of the British Establishment. She also felt that America was a country that could somehow ‘absorb’ celebrity the size of hers.
So that was the germ of the idea, to set the novel in the States. But of course my fictional princess, Lydia, goes there under an entirely different set of circumstances. She’s living in America incognito. I chose the Midwest as Lydia needed to be away from the more cosmopolitan areas on either coast that she had known in her previous life. It also seemed in keeping with the central idea of the book—to give her a life that was ordinary, and to pose the question: what is actually important in life?
To some, Untold Story might seem like a major departure from your first two novels, Brick Lane and In the Kitchen, in which immigrant life in London figures heavily. Was writing Untold Story a different kind of project than your previous work?
Brick Lane was set in the Bangladeshi community in London, my second book, Alentejo Blue was set in a Portuguese village, my third, In the Kitchen is about an English chef from the north of England. They’re all very different from each other and Untold Story is different again. Although I think what they perhaps share in common is a preoccupation with identity. For example, in In the Kitchen, the chef, Gabriel, is metaphorically and then literally stripped of his identity as his world falls apart. In Untold Story, Lydia not only has to construct a new façade of her identity, she also has to construct a new sense of self beneath that façade.
What’s important to me as a writer is to write about what interests me and to keep stretching myself as well. Untold Story has a thriller element that I hadn’t written before, and I enjoyed the challenge of that.
Do you think real-life paparazzi are as morally conflicted as Grabowski? Why did you choose to make a photographer figure so centrally in the novel?
Grabowski draws a distinction between himself and the new breed of paparazzi. He came up in the old Fleet Street tradition and he thinks of himself as having some standards. He laments how those standards have now fallen away.
There’s a cat and mouse game between Grabowski and Lydia that is central to the book’s plot. But in a way what was more important to me, is the notion of complicity. Grabowski is a (lapsed) Catholic. I guess he carries our collective guilt, for the way that we (nearly all of us) suck up the details of celebrities’ private lives.
Many girls grow up with the fantasy of becoming a princess. Lydia, as princess, has the opposite dream—of becoming average, living a normal life. Was that an irony that appealed to you?
I think this comes back to fairy tales. Marrying a prince—we know, because Diana showed us—is no guarantee of happiness.
We have material comforts in abundance. We no longer need carriages and glass slippers. Neither do we really believe any more in the benign transformative power of great wealth and fame (rather the reverse).
The modern Cinderella with her fast, complex life wants the simple things: independence, freedom, friends she can trust and a good man to love. That’s what I wanted to explore.