This reading group guide forUntold 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.
Monica Ali has been named by Granta as one of the twenty best young British novelists. She is the author of In the Kitchen, Alentejo Blue, and Brick Lane, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She lives in London with her husband and two children.