This is my review of Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan.
Having written a fictionalised memoir of her bipolar mother’s life which ended in suicide, the award-winning author Delphine Le Vigan is well–placed to muse on the borders between reality, perceived truth and creative invention. In “Based on a True Story”, this theme is interwoven with the psychological drama of a vulnerable author finding her life being insidiously taken over by a charismatic but probably unstable individual who wants to go beyond being a ghost writer to control the life of a successful author. The inspiration for this comes at least in part from Stephen King’s novels, quotations from which, including “Misery”, at the beginning of each section give broad hints as to where matters are heading.
In giving the novel’s narrator her own name of Delphine, the author suggests a degree of autobiography, but although she herself may well have experienced a period of “writer’s block”, it is to be hoped that the bulk of the story is “made up”. Overwhelmed by the success of her novel revealing intimate family details, which has upset some relatives, bombarded at book signing sessions by fans whom she has given the confidence to unburden their own troubles, it is not surprising that the fictional Delphine is finding it impossible to write. With hindsight, she attributes her decline to the malign influence of her enigmatic friend “L” who at first seemed such a kindred spirit, so eager to help manage her life.
The tense, claustrophobic relationship rapidly established between Delphine and “L” is heightened by the absence of other characters. As regards Delphine’ family, this is conveniently explained by her childrens’ absence at college while her lover spends long periods on work projects in the States. While Delphine initially wants to write creative fiction, the ever more dominating “L” is determined that she should focus on real experiences, however painful, arguing that this is what people wish to read about and now expect from her. This seems a somewhat sterile argument over a false dichotomy, since apart from the fact that people see reality very differently, it is inevitably altered through a writer’s descriptions and interpretations into a “form of fiction”. A book may claim to be “a true story”, but even when “inspired by real facts” may in practice be largely invented.
Although this book has been highly praised, for me it falls short of the subtle and mind-bending work it could have been. The decision to present a retrospective explanation of events with indications of what was about to happen may feed a sense of “reality” but combined with the repetition of points “ad nauseum” makes for an often rather dull and tedious read. When the suspense does begin to ramp up, it tends to become rapidly too melodramatic, collapsing all too predictably into disappointingly mundane or even ludicrous anticlimax. Although the novel benefits from a twist towards the end, the author does not seem to know when to stop – the last two chapters in particular seem counterproductive.
I am tempted to see Polanski’s film on this, since I suspect that the director of “Rosemary’s Baby” will know how to create a real sense of menacing suspense, perhaps at the expense of the literary arguments.