The horrors of authorship — missed deadlines, self-loathing, isolation — provide especially good material for psychological thrillers. The writer works in solitude, sequestered in a lonely house in a deserted town, incapable of producing a page. If the writer achieves any measure of fame, she attracts the kind of weirdo fans who believe they have somehow inhabited the writer’s brain through her work and have earned a personal connection. Add a twisted, witchy relationship that’s closer to identity theft than friendship, and you have Delphine de Vigan’s latest novel, “Based on a True Story.”
It’s “Gone Girl” put through a Gallic blender, dressed up with notes from classic manipulation and sanity fables — “Single White Female,” “Misery,” “The Shining,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley” — and robustly anointed with Sartrean navel gazing. The cinematic narrative (already adapted by Roman Polanski and unveiled at Cannes this year) unspools as you read: Overwhelmed by the success of her best-selling autobiographical novel, Delphine encounters a vicious case of writer’s block, incapable even of responding to an email. Her children have just left for college, and her lover, François, a documentary filmmaker, is usually off wandering the globe. Her hair frizzy and her clothes rumpled, Delphine is dégonflée.
Enter L., an expertly coifed Frenchwoman who works as a ghostwriter of celebrity memoirs. Chic and glittering, she keeps an eerily spotless apartment and a wardrobe en pointe. After the two women meet at a dim party and throw back a few kitchen-table vodkas, L. insinuates herself into Delphine’s life, answering her mail, writing her long-overdue preface to a classic novel, even offering to appear as her stand-in at a lecture, dressed and styled exactly as Delphine. (She also bakes a mean tagine.)
L. suggests that she and Delphine attended the same high school, noting defensively that Delphine doesn’t remember her — like a French noir version of that kid from eighth grade reaching out on Facebook. L. adores the same two little-known movies as Delphine and shares her obscure obsession with the 1980s tennis star Ivan Lendl. Things turn rapidly more sinister: After L. starts wearing the same ankle boots, the same brand of bluejeans, dressing and modeling herself after Delphine, she suddenly needs a new place to live for a few weeks and moves in. (François is still traveling the globe. François, come back!) She locks herself in her room, at times laughing raucously, talking loudly to possibly nonexistent people, working away at her celebrity ghost biographies. (Then again, I’ve known some ghostwriters. This may be not so far from their daily reality.) We discover L.’s rage issues.
After this point, I don’t advise reading the novel at night, alone. The two women move to the countryside so Delphine can recover (in a nod to Stephen King’s “Misery”) from a broken foot. I had to read the last 100 pages in a sunny room with my children playing nearby. And I still got the chills. The final coup de grâce — the delivery of a final MacGuffin manuscript — will leave you with questions about the nature of reality and sanity.
A best seller in France, the novel will find its passionate readers here despite the occasionally clunky translation. I’m not sure most American readers will know what the phrase “pip you to the post” means, which, instead of adding gravity to a long monologue in a dark Euro thriller, put me in mind of some merry British translator sitting in a Sussex cottage huddled over his MacBook Pro. And the word “complicity” appears many times throughout the book, implying friendship and understanding, when the word in fact refers to the state of being an accomplice or partner in a wrongdoing. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe that ambiguity is precisely what de Vigan intended.