Based on a True Story: Delphine de Vigan

The title of Delphine de Vigan’s latest book, Based on a True Story is a bit of a teaser. Is this book fiction or not? The book’s inside flap states that “this psychological thriller blurs the line between fact and fiction, reality and artifice,” and you can’t help but wonder what is ‘true’ and what is imagined when you read the book. After all, the author writes “autobiographical fiction,” and the main character is Delphine, an author who’s just written a book about her mother (Delphine de Vigan’s book about her mother is reviewed here), and if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that there are elements of the book that are true with imagination taking flight at some point. But frankly, I’m not interested in how much is real and how much is fiction; after all, I’m sure many writers use personal experiences, in one form or another, for inspiration.

Based on aTrue Story

The book begins with Delphine (the character) describing how she became friends with a woman she identifies only as L. They meet at a party, and “profoundly, slowly, surely, insidiously” L enters Delphine’s life and, over a two-year-period, gradually takes it over. When the two women meet, Delphine is at a low point in her life, and the publication of a book about her mother has had unexpected, mostly negative results. So here’s Delphine, a successful writer who meets L, a ghostwriter of various biographies and memoirs. To Delphine, L appears to be everything she will never be, immaculate:

How much time does it take to be a woman like that? I wondered as I looked at L., as I had observed dozens of women before, on the metro, in cinema queues and at restaurant tables. Coiffed, made up and neatly pressed. Without a crease. How much time to reach that state of perfection every morning and how much time for touch-ups before going out in the evening? What kind of life do you have to lead to have time to tame your hair by blow-drying, to change your jewellery every day, to coordinate and vary your outfits, to leave nothing to chance?

Within a short time, L. is in contact with Delphine on a daily basis. Meanwhile Delphine is receiving anonymous hate mail, and having difficulties writing. While L positions herself as Delphine’s friend and staunch supporter, in reality, she’s subtly undermining Delphine’s confidence and influencing her behaviour with negative and positive reinforcement. The  gradual decline of Delphine’s confidence is in direct proportion to L’s control over Delphine’s life. Yes, a friend in need is a friend indeed, unless she has your destruction at heart–in which case you’d better beware.

The problem is that Delphine doesn’t catch on until so many things have occurred and she has had several serious warnings that L is a psycho. L is slick, but her mask occasionally slips, and there’s really no reason why Delphine doesn’t see this. For example, at one point, L is snarkily raving on about her theories of Delphine’s writing:

I sometimes wonder if you shouldn’t be suspicious of the comfort you live in, your little life that’s ultimately quite comfortable, with your children, your man, writing, all carefully gauged.

Of course, L has partially achieved this control by gradually isolating Delphine and slowly eradicating her confidence, but it’s hard not to wonder why Delphine, who is a successful writer accepts the writing advice, constantly, of a woman who make her living as a ghostwriter? Or why Delphine abdicates her personal responsibilities repeatedly? Why doesn’t Delphine punch back?

At the heart of the matter is the idea that L tapped into Delphine’s deepest insecurities, but this wasn’t entirely achieved–especially when Delphine is given a warning that cannot be ignored, but goes back for more. … Again, perhaps that says more about Delphine’s needs than L’s occasionally sloppy methodology, but if that is true, the book’s thesis isn’t quite convincing.

While I eagerly turned each page of Based on a True Story, I wished that Delphine would wake up and smell the psycho, and I felt no small amount of frustration that it took so long. However, this an interesting read and a cautionary one. Writers are, after all, on the celebrity spectrum, but they are accessible to the public, fans and, yes, even haters.

And here’s Gert’s review

Review copy

Translated by George Miller

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14 Comments

Filed under de Vigan Delphine, Fiction

14 responses to “Based on a True Story: Delphine de Vigan

  1. Thanks for the link. I think we agree this book is not as good as Nothing Holds Back the Night, although you seem to have been more involved in the story than I was.

    • That may be because I knew someone that this sort of thing happened to–although it didn’t go as far. Nothing Holds Back the Night is the best of the three I’ve read from this author.

  2. Sounds good if a little far-fetched although I fear I would get hung up on quite how much was true!

  3. Funnily enough, I was looking at this in a bookshop the other day, but as it’s still in hardback I’m going to wait a while. It does sound very intriguing, albeit somewhat frustrating for the reasons you mention in your review.

    I didn’t realise that Nothing Holds Back the Night had attracted such a negative response from certain quarters. Do you know if that’s true?

    • Did you read Nothing Holds Back the Night? Given the digging she did into subjects that no one wanted to talk about, I could see negative reactions.

      • I did, but I wasn’t aware of the negative reactions. I knew she had encountered difficulties with some members of her family, but not with readers or critics.

        • The novel mentions negative reactions from the public. Not sure if that applies to truth or not, but knowing social media and how haters pop out of the woodwork and wax large on the internet, I could see that could be true. After all, Delphine de Viagn exposed herself in that novel and there’s a certain type that smell blood.

  4. I loved Nothing Holds Back the Night so much that I bought this one in French as soon as it came out – but still haven’t read it (what does that say about me, I wonder?). I seem to be reading quite a few lately about authors being pursued by fans or wannabe writers… hmmm… a new trend?

  5. I bought this and shall look forward to seeing if I feel the same way. Do you find out whether it’s ‘real’ or imagined? – actually better not tell me. I do have Nothing Holds Back the Night in my piles to read too and given the comments above am now more desperate to read that first perhaps.

  6. I’m not so sure about this. I actually gate it when authors give their character their own name. I like to know whether something is fact or fiction. If you want it to be fiction, don’t mention it could be fact.
    Did she do this. Because she wanted to avoid issues with the law?

    • I don’t care for it as a device either much Caroline, but I’ve liked Delphine de Vigan before and assumed I’d liked this too. I did, but I had some reservations.
      As to the last question, I doubt it. I can’t elaborate w/o spoilers

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