Anticipating Alternative History

What if?  Powerful words turned into fictionalized accounts of history can be so much fun.  Thomas Mallon, author of Watergate, his reimagining of the famous debacle that brought down Nixon’s presidency, offers a list of alternate history in fiction in his essay for The New Yorker – Never Happened.

My favorite includes Monica Ali’s An Untold Story, imagining Princess Diana faked her own death, started life over as Lydia Snaresbrook,  and created a new life in a Midwestern American town, appropriately  named Kensington.  Stephen King’s 11/22/63 also captured my attention when he used time travel to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Now Curtis Sittenfeld, author of American Wife which channelled First Lady Laura Bush,  creates a life for Hilary Rodham as if she had never married Bill Clinton.

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Publication date is set for 2019 – we will have to wait for this thriller.

Reviews:

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from Ann Beattie’s Imagination – Mrs. Pat Nixon

A frequent contributor to The New Yorker, with her own collection of short stories making the best seller list (see the review below), Ann Beattie has imagined Pat Nixon’s life in a fictionalized version of the former first lady’s life and thoughts – Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life – to be published this month.  Not the first time a First Lady has recently been subjected to conjecture:  Laura Bush in Curtis Sittenfeld’s An American Wife, Hilary Clinton in Sue Miller’s The Senator’s Wife.  Monica Ali even resurrected Princess Diana with a new life in Untold Story.

In her article for the New York Times, Me and Mrs. Nixon, Beattie offers her rationale for creating her own scrutiny of Richard Nixon’s wife – a seeming paragon of old-fashioned values, married to a man with no values.  What must have been going on in her head?  How did she manage to fade so effectively into the background – even behind the intensity of her daughters?

Beattie offered a taste of what to expect in her recent excerpt in The New Yorker – Starlight.  The book might be fun to read, but, like others in this genre, it could be hard to remember it’s fiction.

  • Read the review of Ann Beattie – the New Yorker Storieshere

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.