Mystery novelist Beck (Bad Neighbors, 1996, etc.) dives into the bizarre, controversial story of Opal Whiteley (1897–1992), whose published diary was first hailed as a sensation, then dismissed as a fabrication.
Whiteley was clearly mad by the end of her life—institutionalized in England, she claimed she’d been secretly married to the Duke of Windsor and was a member of France’s royal family—and she had several documented breakdowns during her long, remarkable career. Her celebrity was genuine, though its basis was highly debatable. Those who accept Opal’s various self-constructions and reconstructions believe that the diary that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1920 is an authentic record of childhood spirituality; others consider it a fraud concocted to get its author published. Whiteley began seeking a public early, rising to prominence in the Oregon church youth group she belonged to, then moving hither and yon, from West Coast to East Coast, from India to Italy to England. Everywhere she went, she ingratiated herself with gullible aristocrats and publishers, continually re-imagining her life to charm those in position to help her and forever writing treacly accounts of the wonders of nature. As a girl and a young woman she apparently exuded a charisma powerful enough to peel paint, but most people soon tired of her sloppiness, self-obsession, and lies. More fascinating than Opal herself are the effects she had on people who ought to have known better. Beck interviewed everyone she could find who is connected Whiteley’s story, those who obsess and those who scoff, and consulted every relevant text and document housed in archives, ranging from Oregon to the UK to India. But she treats her subject’s fantasies and delusions with more respect than they deserve.
An enjoyable literary cocktail that needs a stiffer shot of incredulity. (photos, not seen)