"August 31, 1997," the book begins. "Paris. The car that sped into the Pont D'Alma Tunnel at twenty-three minutes past midnight was carrying the most famous woman in the world."
Really? I know I rolled over and went back to bed when my then-wife -- who was 45 minutes late to our wedding -- woke up in the middle of the night to watch the Royal Wedding. Sure, Diana was a stunner. But very few men will tell you they want to spend more than a few hours with a bulimic woman of uncertain sanity. No, Diana was a chick fantasy.
The death? Another story. A horse-drawn wagon carrying a coffin and an envelope with one word, "Mummy," had the entire world blubbering. "I still weep when I see clips," a friend told me yesterday. "And the flowers in front of Buck House always get me."
But there have been so many books. And an excellent movie, The Queen. What's left?
For most writers starting out on a Diana book in 2005, not much. But Tina Brown has a sharp eye for the telling fact. And her enormous Rolodex led her to sources who never talked before or who trusted her to Get It Right. The result is a reading experience that will take over your life until -- exhausted by unexpected empathy -- you turn the last page.
How is this? The end of the story is the most common memory on the planet. What don't we know about this woman?
Well, the "engagement ring" that Dodi Fayed bought Diana on the last day of her life -- he was in and out of the jewelry store in "seven minutes, twenty-seven seconds."
That last dinner at the Ritz -- Diana was "quietly weeping in full view of the clientele."
Camilla, on horseback, told Charles, on horseback, the first time they met, "That's a fine animal you have there, Sir." (A very effective opening line. Observes Brown: "Women who love horses usually love sex.")
How many times did Diana see Charles before their wedding? Thirteen.
How often did Charles and Diana make love? Once every three weeks, at best. In the missionary position.
When the marriage ended, what did Charles do with the unused wedding presents? Had them piled up in the garden -- and burned.
And there's so much more. Do the strange rituals of the Royal Family appeal to you? Are you curious about gossip columnists and photographers? And, most of all, do you get off on the sense of being in the room with real-life celebrities as their lives fall apart? Then The Diana Chronicles is an extra-large box of chocolates.
But this book is not just the greatest Vanity Fair cover story never written. Brown has a thesis. She doesn't bang you over the head with it -- it develops naturally. Like this: A shy, uneducated, dreamy girl from a dysfunctional family pushes herself into her country's ultimate family. Instead of finding Prince Charming, she finds herself married to a man who sneaks off to his lover every chance he gets. She's desperate for a hug from his mum, which is, of course, the last thing the Queen is able to give her. The marriage turns into the royal version of A Star Is Born -- she's going up, he's coming down. Envy, misunderstanding and misery ensue. Which leads to the wrong man, and another, and another, until she bottoms out with Dodi Fayed. "Diana told herself she was looking for love," Brown writes. "But what she was really seeking was a guy with a Gulfstream."
And the writing! Although the book is very much a narrative, the narrator does not seem like a writer at all -- The Diana Chronicles reads like a transcription of a brilliant raconteur. Here is Brown on the Ritz Hotel at summer's end:
...even the more exclusive areas of the hotel -- such as its restaurant, L'Espadon -- have a louche air of rootless extravagance. South American call girls with hirsute operators from emerging markets and rich old ladies with predatory nephews can be seen poring over the wine list under the trompe l'oeil of its opulent ceiling. Dinner for two sets you back $700.
Or this, Brown's takeaway of her lunch with Diana in July, 1997:
The heads of world-class celebrities literally seem to enlarge. Hillary Clinton's, for example, has grown enormously since she was the mere wife of the governor of Arkansas. It nods when she talks to you, like a balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. The years of limelight so inflamed the circumference of Jackie O's cranium, it seemed her real face must be concealed by an oversized Halloween mask. If you looked into her eyes, you could see her in there, screaming.
In these pages, we see Diana in there, screaming, and it makes all the difference. I always thought beneath that thin veneer was another thin veneer; Brown gives us a person. Indeed, she gives us all the people, fully fleshed. And, thus, surprising. Charles is much less of a prick than you may have thought. And Prince Philip, a consistent dunce in The Queen, does something quite magnificent at Diana's funeral.
Are there dead spots? Diana's childhood goes on and on. And the last few paragraphs made me uneasy -- I'm not at all sure Diana's sons are her "legacy." But those are small quibbles. Much more memorable is the intelligent conversation you have with a book like this -- for what is a more interactive experience than a smartly written book?
I sat on my window seat, book in hand, and read through the morning, was handed a sandwich, read on through the afternoon, ignored the child, day becoming night, the air cooler now, turning the pages faster, feeling the blood churn, wanting to shout no, no, don't...don't, and then the abreaction, the reliving of the funeral and the tears we shed for ourselves as much as for Diana -- yeah, the day I read The Diana Chronicles was a good one.
And the thing was, when I started reading, I didn't give a damn.
-- by Jesse Kornbluth, for HeadButler.com
To buy "The Diana Chronicles" from Amazon.com, click here.
Disclosure: I worked for Tina Brown at Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Talk and her television show, Topic A. I've said it often: I've had the pleasure of many talented editors, but only one genius -- Tina. So how can I fairly review her book? Because there is no chillier editor on the planet than Ms. Brown -- she would kill a piece by her closest friend if she thought it weakened an issue of her magazine. She did, in fact, kill many pieces of mine. It was not a fun process, but once I got over myself, I learned something valuable: how to read copy with as little emotion as she does. So had I found The Diana Chronicles a flat, unoriginal cut-and-paste job, I would have sent her a charming and hypocritical e-mail, and I would never have pumped you up with the review above. But The Diana Chronicles is beach candy -- and then some.
Copyright 2007 by Head Butler Inc.