Book Review: 'Based On A True Story,' By Delphine De Vigan French novelist Delphine De Vigan follows up her tell-all 2012 memoir with a creepy tale of a blocked novelist — also named Delphine — who falls under the sway of an elegant, menacing ghostwriter.
NPR logo 'Based On A True Story' May Not Be True — But It's Still Scary

Review

Book Reviews

'Based On A True Story' May Not Be True — But It's Still Scary

Two things, first: One, Delphine de Vigan's Based on a True Story is a powerful novel of suspense. Two, Based on a True Story may or may not be based on truth.

You'll read many reviews this season about de Vigan's book that mention those things and discuss one or both at length. Critics (and readers) are always eager for the story behind the story, and in this case the author presents the tease immediately, titularly. She continues in this vein by naming her narrator Delphine, and making her a middle aged Parisian writer who has recently found great success with a tell-all memoir about her family — as the real-life de Vigan did with the 2012 Nothing Holds Back the Night, in which she attempted to reconstruct her mother's mental illness.

Unfortunately for both de Vigan and her Delphine, the memoir also received a great deal of opposition from family members, and as Based on a True Story begins, Delphine is haunted by whether or not she should have written her last novel. She's exhausted and unable to write so much as a sentence. When an acquaintance, professional ghostwriter L. (we never learn more of her name), pushes their friendship to the point where she's moved into Delphine's apartment and is not only signing her name on checks but also acting as her body double at literary events, it seems only one end is in sight. Section epigraphs from Stephen King's Misery, that paragon of novels about tortured writers, only add to the slow, viscous suspense.

L. wants Delphine to get back to writing, and right quickly; L. believes that readers expect novelists to "lay their guts on the table." When readers aren't worried about whether or not L. will wind up laying Delphine's guts on the table, they may consider de Vigan's metafictional purpose in crafting this book. Certainly, she's playing with the idea of who tells a story, and how — especially in the scenes where Delphine receives unsigned nastygrams from a relative about why she should not have written her previous book.

However, the story she tells that fascinates me is the one of female friendship gone wrong, of a woman taken emotional hostage by another. Not since Samantha Harvey's masterful Dear Thief has there been such a painful evisceration of connection. As L. takes control, Delphine relinquishes it, true, but that doesn't mean she wants to disappear. She tells us early on that as a child she hated her birthday celebration because she disliked all the eyes "focusing on me, the collective emotion." L. takes advantage of Delphine's wish to evade the public eye, and for a long while it works. "I couldn't wait to go into purdah," Delphine says, primed for the elegant, organized, strength of L., a woman who seems to exist in a vacuum. Where does she live? How does she choose her beautiful clothes? What does she really want from Delphine?

Yes, all of these and more point us to the elements of suspense in Based on a True Story. But they also point us to how and why Delphine becomes entangled in L.'s web. When women meet and create friendships, there is a certain suspense in figuring out their respective roles. Who teaches, who learns? Will a new friend help you become smarter, more stylish, more connected? Will that friend be someone you see or speak to on a daily basis, or perhaps just a few times a year?

"I must say that with her I was never bored," Delphine tells us towards the book's midpoint, and that's because between the friends nothing is forbidden, especially those topics that society eschews — how to be a woman at midlife, how age affects status, what women can write about that men can't. "The power of attraction L. exerted on me was probably all of this: I admired her for her clear-sightedness about the world and about herself, but also for her ability to bluff, to play the game." Delphine hates the game and doesn't want to play it, but that willful blindness leads to real trouble as L. takes over more and more of her life.

The red alert, Delphine knows now, was when she came to believe L. was the only person who could understand her. She knows why, too. Many writers, at midlife, have children grown and flown, partners busy with their own careers, and friends scattered to the four winds. It's easy to believe that a person who "fits" you is the answer to your isolation. In the novel's (memoir's?) second half, we'll see that belief unravel rapidly. However, readers should never forget Delphine invited L. into her life — this is a story of vampirism, but the emotional kind.

Bethanne Patrick is a freelance writer and critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.