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Simon & Schuster
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TODAY contributor
updated 6/23/2011 12:14:52 PM ET 2011-06-23T16:14:52

A certain former British princess has run away from fame and fortune to live undercover in the American suburbs. She’s had plastic surgery, dyed her hair and her American friends know her only as a British divorcee. Sound plausible? That’s the story line of “Untold Story,” the new novel by celebrated “Brick Lane” author Monica Ali.

Inspired by Princess Diana, Ali’s novel is about what might have happened to the “People’s Princess” had she lived through the Paris car crash in 1997. In “Untold Story,” the main character, Lydia, manages to create a new existence for herself, only to find it threatened when a paparazzo from her past appears in her new town, ironically called Kensington.

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“I focused on one aspect in particular of Diana’s life, which was her fantasy of leading an ordinary life,” Ali told TODAY.com from her home in London. “That was never going to be more than an idle dream. But I took the theme and ran with it, choosing to write about a fictional princess who goes off and leaves her riches and fame.”

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The subject matter is a change for Ali, who made her name with the acclaimed book “Brick Lane,” about Bangladeshi immigrants finding their way in a new culture. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, “Brick Lane,” and her subsequent novel “In the Kitchen,” about a Ukrainian immigrant, have served to pigeonhole Ali in the minds of many critics who expect her to write only about the immigrant experience and have criticized her for writing about a subject deemed too lowly for the celebrated writer.

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Monica Ali 2011
Liz Emerson
Monica Ali

Ali, 42, the child of English and Bengali parents, grew up in Bolton in the north of England. She now lives in London with her husband and two children, ages 12 and 10. As a kid, Ali says she was a close follower of Princess Diana’s life, and remembers crowding into a neighbor's living room when she was 13 to watch her wedding to Prince Charles.

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“There’s this question of what I’m expected to write about overhanging my work,” Ali told TODAY.com. “The press seems to think I should stick to writing about immigrants and multiculturalism. Well, I am also a British woman, and like a lot of British women I was fascinated by Diana. The idea that fame and celebrity are not worthy of examination is complete nonsense. Everyone knows that it’s a big issue in society. Diana wasn’t just in the tabloids; she was in the mainstream press every week.”

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Although she died 14 years ago this summer, Diana’s life still fascinates millions of people around the globe. The story of what could have happened to her had she lived is irresistible to royal watchers and conspiracy theorists, and the book has generated much interest, even appearing on O magazine’s summer reading list. But despite the public’s enthusiasm, “Untold Story” has received lackluster reviews.

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“Ms. Ali does an engaging job of creating sympathy for her heroine, but she has a hard time making the reader believe, for an instant, that Lydia was once a princess,” writes literary critic Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, calling the book "implausible and preposterously gimmicky.”

The reviews in her native Britain were no more complimentary, with the Guardian calling the plot “unremittingly silly.”

Still, Ali has received many letters of support from readers and fellow authors, thanking her for portraying the fictional Diana with “skill and insight.” Without a doubt, the author, who submitted the manuscript for the book last July, got lucky with her timing: The U.K. release coincided with royal wedding fever and a renewed interest in all things Diana.

Ali is now working on writing short stories and is researching another novel.

“I know that the easy way to make money is to follow the formula of ‘Brick Lane,’ ” says Ali. “People want ‘brand name’ authors and it’s easier to sell a book if it is in the same mold as others I have written. But that is not what I am about. I have to write what I am interested in.”

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Photos: Life

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  1. Lady Diana Frances Spencer, later Princess Diana of Wales (1961-1997), is shown July 1, 1963, at Park House, Sandringham, Norfolk, England. (Keystone via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Lady Diana Spencer, then a children's nanny, is shown with two of her charges in 1980, the year before she married Prince Charles. (Hulton Archive via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Lady Diana Spencer playfully gestures toward photographers during a visit to Broadlands, the former home of Earl Mountbatten, in Romsey, England, on May 9, 1981. Walking behind her is police bodyguard Graham Smith. (Tim Graham / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Princess Diana and Prince Charles are shown on their wedding day in London on July 29, 1981. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Princess Diana dances with actor John Travolta during a visit to the White House in 1985. (Tim Graham Picture Library via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A 1986 Emanuel ball gown worn by late Princess Diana is displayed on a mannequin during an auction in London, Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013. According to the auction house, Diana wore the gown with gold sequins, crystals and pearl beads comes with matching headband, optional sleeve panels and petticoat, in various occasions. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis) Mandatory Credit: Photo by Today/REX USA (105461a) PRINCESS DIANA Richard Von Weizsacker state visit, banquet at the German Ambassador's residence, London, Britain - Jul 1986 (AP, Rex USA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Princess Diana visits a hostel for abandoned children, many of whom are HIV-positive or suffer from AIDS, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on April 24, 1991. (Tim Graham Picture Library via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Princess Diana chats with Mother Teresa during a visit to a convent in Rome on Feb. 19, 1992. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Prince Charles and Princess Diana are shown during their last official trip together, in Seoul, South Korea, on Nov. 3, 1992. They attended a banquet at the government Blue House in Seoul. (Tim Graham Picture Library via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Princess Diana returns to Kensington Palace in London on Dec. 9, 1992, after the initial announcement that she and Prince Charles would separate. (Thierry Saliou / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Princess Diana leaves a press conference at the Hilton Hotel, London, in which she gave a speech resigning from her public duties, on Dec. 3, 1993. (Hulton Archive via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Princess Diana watches a military parade on V-J Day, Aug. 19, 1995, in London with her sons Harry, second left, and William, second right, and Prince Charles, right. (Johnny Eggitt / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Princess Diana smiles during a visit to Leicester, England, on May 27, 1997. (John Stillwell / Pool via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Princess Diana tours a minefield dressed in a flak jacket and face shield in Huambo, Angola, on Jan. 15, 1997. The visit was part of Diana's campaign to raise awareness for victims of landmines. (John Stillwell / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Princess Diana attends a preview party at Christies, New York, on June 23, 1997, for an auction of her dresses. Lord Hindlip, chairman of Christies International, accompanies her. (Tim Graham Picture Library via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. From left, Prince Charles, Prince Harry, Earl Charles Spencer (Princess Diana's brother), Prince William and Prince Philip (Charles' father) watch the coffin bearing Diana's body being taken into Westminster Abbey, London, on Sept. 6, 1997. (John Gaps III / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Prince William, left, and Prince Harry appear on stage during the star-studded Concert for Diana, which honored their mother, at London's Wembley Stadium on July 1, 2007. More than 60,000 people attended the event on what would have been the princess' 46th birthday. (Stephen Hird / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A photograph and plastic flower in memory of the late Princess Diana sit within the grounds of Kensington Palace, London, on Aug. 30, 2007, a day before a memorial service in honor of the late princess. (Lefteris Pitarakis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Baby Diana
    Keystone via Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (18) Princess Diana's life - Life
  2. Image:
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    Slideshow (21) Princess Diana's life - Style
  3. Image: Royal Engagement
    Hulton Archive via Getty Images
    Slideshow (14) Princess Diana's life - Wedding
  4. Last moments
    H.M. Coroner via EPA
    Slideshow (10) Princess Diana's life - Final moments
  5. Image: Royal Engagement
    Hulton Archive via Getty Images
    Slideshow (14) The wedding of Charles and Diana - Wedding
  6. Baby Diana
    Keystone via Getty Images
    Slideshow (18) The wedding of Charles and Diana - Life
  1. Image:
    Getty Images via InStyle.com
    Slideshow (21) The wedding of Charles and Diana - Style
  2. Last moments
    H.M. Coroner via EPA
    Slideshow (10) The wedding of Charles and Diana - Final moments
  3. Last moments
    H.M. Coroner via EPA
    Slideshow (10) Diana's final moments - Final moments
  4. Baby Diana
    Keystone via Getty Images
    Slideshow (18) Diana's final moments - Life
  5. Image:
    Getty Images via InStyle.com
    Slideshow (21) Diana's final moments - Style
  6. Image: Royal Engagement
    Hulton Archive via Getty Images
    Slideshow (14) Diana's final moments - Wedding

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