It’s a question we’re not supposed to ask ourselves (quash useless regrets before they grow, says mother). But it’s also a question that makes for an irresistible novel.
As in, what if Princess Diana hadn’t died in that tragic car accident in Paris?
That’s the premise of Monica Ali’s new novel, “Untold Story,” and it’s already raising eyebrows.
In it, Diana fakes her own death in the famous car crash, later jumps off her boyfriend’s yacht, swims to a Brazilian beach, has a bit of plastic surgery, then finds her way to a little American town called Kensington (that’s right) and settles into a quiet, ordinary, suburban life as a tall, slim brunette named Lydia.
Tantalizing, sure, but here’s another what if. What if Diana were alive? What would she have thought of this? Does it make you just a wee bit squeamish?
Ms. Ali, high-brow Brit author of Booker-nominated “Brick Lane,” is facing heat on this, her most daring novel. It’s been called low-brow, exploitative, in poor taste.
But Ali isn’t the only one pushing the envelope with a fictionalized account of a real person. Mark Helprin’s “Freddy and Fredericka,” a playful parody of a future king and queen of England, is a thinly veiled satire of Charles and Diana. And Curtis Sittenfeld’s “American Wife,” about a bookish woman with liberal tendencies who marries a ne’er-do-well rake – who happens to be the son of a famous politician – and who loves booze and parties and eventually becomes President? We don’t even have to tell you it’s the fictional account of Laura Bush’s life. (Ms. Sittenfeld gently, but firmly, criticized “Untold Story” as bland, simplistic, and banal, in a review in the New York Times.)
Here’s how Ali responded to criticism that her novel was a low-brow story on celebrity, in an interview with NPR: ”To certain members of the literary establishment, it's a kind of crime to write a book that's entertaining and easy to read," she says – but easy reads can also be thoughtful. "I certainly had to grapple with as much complexity and social situations and issues in writing this book as I did in anything else I've ever written…. Anyone with two brain cells to rub together knows that issues of fame and celebrity, whether you like it or not, are an important part of modern life.”
And then there’s that ghoulish Newsweek cover that’s already sparked thousands of outraged comments.
It depicts Diana, smartly styled as always, in a cream-colored sheath, purse, and hat, strolling alongside Kate Middleton, the daughter-in-law she never knew.
“What would she have been like? Still great-looking: that’s a given. Her mother, Frances Shand Kydd, with her cornflower-blue eyes and striding sexuality, was a handsome woman to the very end. Fashionwise, Diana would have gone the J.Crew and Galliano route à la Michelle Obama, always knowing how to mix the casual with the glam. There is no doubt she would have kept her chin taut with strategic Botox shots and her bare arms buff from the gym. Remarriage? At least two, I suspect, on both sides of the Atlantic.”
As with “Untold Story,” “American Wife,” and “Freddy and Fredericka,” is the Newsweek cover warranted? Is writing fictionalized accounts of actual people (living or not) the horrible union of literature and pop culture celebrity obsession? Is it fair? Is it worthy literary exploration or low-brow fluff?
Perhaps the Los Angeles Times framed the question best: “Shocking, brilliant or just plain cheap?”
Husna Haq is a Monitor contributor.