Untold Story

What if – like Elvis – Princess Diana didn’t really die?  What if she were living an obscure life somewhere?  In Monica Ali’s Untold Story, Diana still lives in Kensington, but in North Carolina, and works at an animal shelter.

Ali alternates the beginning chapters from describing Lydia Snaresbook’s (Diana) new life, friends, and lover ten years after her funeral, with Lawrence’s diary.  Lawrence, her faithful assistant, helped her escape to start a new life; in Ali’s version, she survives the tunnel crash and later fakes her death in a swimming accident. Through his notes as he lay dieing of cancer, Lawrence reveals the details – everyone needs an accomplice to go into hiding.

Lydia starts to get sloppy with her disguise – no longer wearing the brown contact lenses, buying gossip magazines to check on her sons.  By accident or fate, a former paparazzo, John “Grabber” Grabowski, happens to stop by the town; when he matches her eyes to old photos and suspects who she really is – the hunt is on.

When not mired down in the drudgery of Lydia’s new suburban life or the boring gossip of her new girlfriends, Monica Ali cleverly infuses ordinary life with extraordinary circumstances – using the mundane to reveal Lydia/Diana’s fears and insecurities, as well as her poise.  Ali makes Lydia a pathetic but remarkable character, emulating the real Diana.   When Lydia realizes that Grabowski has recognized her, the chase becomes a thriller.

Untold Story is not as thoughtful or satisfying as Brick Lane, her novel revealing the choices of a young married Bangladesh woman displaced in London, but Ali manages to create a story about the forlorn princess that uses Curtis Sittenfeld’s conceit in  American Wife,  based on First Lady Laura Bush -not quite believable – but fun to think about.

Tina Brown speculated what Diana would look like at 50.  Still lookin’ good – just like Elvis.

The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen

The moon has always had an ethereal draw – even after astronauts proved it was not made of cheese and the man in the moon was made of craters. The glow from the moon can change a mood – wolves howl, lovers connect,  the sea shimmers.

In Sarah Addison Allen’s latest book,  The Girl Who Chased the Moon, Emily Benedict comes to live with her grandfather in the town her mother left and never looked back.    She finds lingering suspicions, old loves concealed in the carvings in the surrounding wood, and a chance to redeem her mother’s reputation.

More a love story than a mystery,  Allen’s quirky writing asks you to suspend belief with wallpaper that changes with the mood of the inhabitant, a real giant (eight feet tall), and a genetic disposition in the town’s elite family that would make Tinkerbell jealous.    Throw in a couple of star-crossed lovers, a baker of aromatic cakes, and a family feud – you have the makings of a good beach read.

Allen’s characters follow a familiar formula.    The two main characters both have mothers who died when they were teens; both are struggling for acceptance and love in a town with a memory – all’s well that ends well.

Allen’s Garden Spells, also set in North Carolina about a family with special gifts, was less contrived and more fun to read.    The charm of Garden Spells will remind you of another favorite – Laura Esquivel’s  Like Water for Chocolate – cooking with a touch of magic.  If you like the idea of using ingredients and attitude to cook up a dish to literally affect others’ moods, you will like both of these.

If you only have time for one – go with Garden Spells.