If a novel is based on a true story, does that mean it mirrors reality or replicates its every detail, every twist and turn, wink and word? Based on a True Story by multi-award-winning French author Delphine de Vigan has us asking this, and similar questions, on every one of its 300-something pages. Her novel, translated by George Miller, tells the story of the relationship between her protagonist, struggling writer Delphine, and a woman, L., who looks, feels, and acts like a friend. Over the course of the story, both the main character and the reader realise that things are not always as they seem.
Told in first-person, Based on a True Story is a compelling read. The writing itself is simple, but offers a realistic insight into the thoughts and feelings of a woman being manipulated without her even knowing. Although already being compared to gory thrillers like Gone Girl, the French novel details a psychological experience. While there is a similar sort of unexpected twist in the narrative, here grave problems unfold with subtlety, so that the reader lives through a similar process of realisation to the protagonist. In fact, although told in a simple style, this is not what I’d call a fast read. Most of the action is left for the last third of the novel, while the rest speaks to larger themes. Readers cannot escape pondering over the big questions de Vigan asks.
‘Today I know that L. is the sole reason for my powerlessness. And that the two years that we were friends almost made me stop writing for ever.’
Delphine de Vigan constantly challenges the line between fiction and memoir. She questions where writers get their inspiration and what gives them the right to use and manipulate reality on the page. The novel is layered with reflections, which unfold through both interior monologue and dialogue, about what it means for writing to be ‘true’. Most of the appeal stems from the reader’s desperation for de Vigan to clarify whether Based on a True Story is based on her true story. If we take the ambiguous title and do a little more digging into de Vigan’s background, we’ll discover that she lives in Paris, like the protagonist. She has two teenage children, like the protagonist. And, after the recent publication of an autobiographical novel, de Vigan angered multiple relatives, like, you guessed it, the protagonist. The set-in-stone clarification we hope for, however, never happens.
‘People couldn’t care less. They get plenty of fables and characters, they’ve got adventures and plot twists coming out their ears. People have had enough of well-constructed intrigue, clever plot hooks, and denouements. . . . they want to be told about life, don’t you see?’
The blurred boundaries do not end there. Through her exploration of the ins and outs of female friendship, Delphine de Vigan exposes what happens when one’s relationship with another becomes a dependence. Or worse, an obsession. While Delphine initially admires L.’s poise and presence, she becomes suspicious of the latter copying her hairstyle and fashion sense. Things take a turn when L. starts to write for Delphine, instead of her, as her. De Vigan suggests that the most toxic of friendships are those which we refuse to admit are harmful at all.
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.
Although not a long book, there are portions when the narrative feels repetitive and the protagonist’s complaining gets a little old. The writer saves herself, however, with the ending. Dark, twisted, and unexpected, the author crafts a solid and satisfying conclusion without necessarily answering all of the reader’s burning questions. The novel has received non-stop praise and compliment from reviewers and literary critics, and for good reason. It combines psychological thriller with literary fiction and memoir and keeps readers on their toes throughout.
Something tells me we will never know whether Based on a True Story tells an autobiographical tale of de Vigan’s experience. Perhaps that is a decision we have to make for ourselves. Just like the other questions the author raises through her narrative, our answers are intensely personal, products of our individual experiences. Based on our true stories.
Delphine De Vigan
Delphine de Vigan is French and lives in Paris. She has published several novels for adults. No and Me was awarded the Prix des Libraires 2008 (The Booksellers’ Prize) in France.
Based On A True Story was published by Bloomsbury on 9th May 2017.
You can purchase a copy of Based On A True Story from Foyles, Waterstones, or The Book Depository:
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Review by Alice Kouzmenko
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