Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan: Spoiler Discussion

This post is full of spoilers, so STOP READING AFTER THE FIRST SECTION if you don’t want to know the ending (or other details).

Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan SpoilerFiction – Thriller
Released May 9, 2017
384 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon 
Source: Publisher (Bloomsbury USA)










This post contains affiliate links.

I’ve been somewhat burned out of psychological thrillers lately, especially those that are billed as “the next Gone Girl and/or The Girl on the Train.” I generally find that the big twist is either entirely predictable or completely outlandish…and neither one of those situations leaves me feeling satisfied. Completely outlandish is what killed the last thriller I tried (Behind Her Eyes). I wrote a spoiler discussion with all the gory details.

So, I recently tried going international for a satisfying thriller and it worked!

Based on a True Story (a smash hit in France already) is the memoir-style story of a writer’s toxic female friendship. It begins with a titillating Prologue and continues with a creepy, Single White Female vibe that left me dying to know how things would play out. It’s incredibly emotionally tense and de Vigan’s gorgeous writing helps accomplish this.

The first half of the book lays the psychological groundwork for the more action-packed second half. Why is L interested in Delphine? What could L possibly have done to make Delphine stop writing and essentially ruin her life?

The entire time I was reading, I understood that Based on a True Story was completely messing with my head. Much of the allure comes from the “is this story true or isn’t it?” vibe that permeates the entire story, so that’s what we’ll pick apart here.

I haven’t come close to figuring out where I stand on all these questions…and that’s one of the beauties of this story! You’ll keep turning it over in your mind for awhile and it’s a book that will spark debates, making it a great choice for book club.


Is Based on a True Story REALLY based on a true story?

I went into Based on a True Story thinking the book was, in fact, based on a true story. Aside from the obvious (the title), the publisher leads its blurb with this:

[…] a chilling work of fiction–but based on a true story–about a friendship gone terrifyingly toxic and the nature of reality.

And closes with this:

This sophisticated psychological thriller skillfully blurs the line between fact and fiction, reality and artifice. Delphine de Vigan has crafted a terrifying, insidious, meta-fictional thriller; a haunting vision of seduction and betrayal; a book which in its hungering for truth implicates the reader, too–even as it holds us in its thrall.

But, as I was reading, I started to completely question this assumption. A huge theme in the story is the idea that fictional entertainment (books, movies, TV shows) that are “based on a true story” (or marketed as such) are much more compelling for the audience than pure fiction. It’s the type of book L is trying to force Delphine to write next.

And I challenge all of us – you, me, anyone – to disentangle true from false. And in any case, it could be a literary project to write a whole book that presents itself as a true story, a book inspired by so-called real events, but in which everything, or nearly everything, is invented.

Based on a True Story is filled with these types of quotes! Are they a clue that we readers have been conned and that this is not, in fact, a true story? Is this entire book a huge indictment of the lemming-like nature of readers in general?

Based on a True Story could be pure fiction and that title could just refer to this prevailing theme in the book. But, would the publisher go so far as to mislead the public in its marketing blurb?

I’ve tried all kinds of Google searches and found very few actual news articles indicating whether this story is true or any English language in-depth interviews with de Vigan. She’s also not on Twitter. The only thing I’ve seen is a translation of a French language interview with de Vigan in Paris Match Magazine in a blog post by Susie at Novel Visits where she quoted as answering “in one form or another” when asked if there was an L. in her life.

Did Delphine imagine L?

It’s clear towards the end of the book that even Delphine herself questions whether L actually existed. When she figures out she’s been had (in a delightfully The Usual Suspects kind of way!), she tries to find tangible evidence of L’s existence in her life and she cannot find a shred.

It’s possible Delphine could have imagined L in the throes of a deep depression. But, I think the (pretty dang awesome, I might add!) ending pretty much negates this possibility.

If L didn’t exist, who submitted the “novel” in Delphine’s name to her publisher? Delphine could have written it while she was depressed, but would she really have no zero memory of it whatsoever? I guess it’s possible if you also believe she invented L entirely.

But, I’m not sure I buy that Delphine imagined L. while deeply depressed.

I see three possible interpretations of Based on a True Story.

Based on a True Story ends with The End*, the calling card L uses for her ghostwriting. This leads me to the following three interpretations of the book:

  1. Based on a True Story really is closely based on something that actually happened to de Vigan…and Based on a True Story is the actual book the very real L submitted to Delphine’s publisher under Delphine’s name. But, then, can the publisher release this book under de Vigan’s name in good conscience while knowing she didn’t actually write it?
  2. Like #1, Based on a True Story is based on some version of something that actually happened to Delphine, but Delphine really did write the book about her experience. But if this is true, then why did Delphine sign off with L’s calling card? To trick the reader? As a cheeky nod to L? This piece has me stumped.
  3. Based on a True Story is completely fiction (written by de Vigan) and the title refers to the theme I discussed above. Ending the book with L’s calling card is just a cheeky nod to her and the story. Maybe even inserted at the last minute by the publisher. But, again, why would be publisher then state it’s “based on a true story” in the marketing blurb?

I think all this ambiguity is intentional and meant to make the book more compelling…which it absolutely did for me.

As to which theory I personally subscribe to…I think it’s #2…mainly because of the quote Susie at Novel Visits found in the French language Paris Match MagazineBut, I admit I’m still questioning myself. There are holes in all three theories.

How do you feel about all the ambiguity? And, about never finding out who L really was or why she wanted to insinuate herself in Delphine’s life?

About knowing for sure if the book is based on a true story?

Part of me loves the fact that I finished the book weeks ago and am still trying to parce this all out. But, another, lazier, part of me wants the key to the castle…right now!

I’m definitely the type of reader who doesn’t mind an open or ambiguous ending…as long as it isn’t super abrupt and makes sense with the story. In this case, I think the ambiguity was intentional and well-crafted, so it doesn’t make me want to throw the book across the room.

Knowing who L really was or why she wanted to insinuate herself into Delphine’s life?

Initially, I was annoyed that this was never answered. But, now that some time has gone by, I’m much more focused on whether the story is true or not. L’s motive almost seems beside the point.

Let’s discuss! What did you think of Based on a True Story? How do you feel about all the ambiguity?

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  1. This is so great, Sarah! I’m going to come back and discuss tonight after work…too many thoughts to pull together in a rush.

    Posted 5.11.17 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Oh yes – this is not a comment to be rushed!

      Posted 5.11.17 Reply
  2. I skipped most of your post because I think this is a book I’d love!

    Posted 5.11.17 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Yay – check back after you read it!

      Posted 5.11.17 Reply
  3. Great questions!
    First, I think de Vigan is a genius for writing a book that is so fraught with ambiguity. The reader questioning fiction versus reality is exactly what she was going for. I love a book that keeps me guessing and that I can’t easily forget. Based on a True Story is the sort of book I’ll remember every detail about many years from now. That’s talent!

    I don’t think the book is pure fiction, but I also don’t think whatever happened in her life to inspire this book went as far as the story does. My most basic theory is that after de Vigan’s last book she herself may have been experiencing some writer’s block. Perhaps this was compounded by conversations she had with a friend. Maybe that friend was even pushing her to go more toward reality writing. That person may have even been someone like her agent or boyfriend. Maybe those conversations grew into Based on a True Story, a book that delivers on “reality.” I also don’t think, it’s completely out of the realm of possibility that the story was almost completely imagined. I can see how a small seed, or a personal conflict over her own writing could have spurred this book.

    So, yes, I think there was some sort of L. inspiration, but I definitely don’t believe L. wrote the book. (Had that happened, why would Delphine de Vigan allow her name to be on the book and wouldn’t L. need to garner some credit? She wasn’t that selfless!)

    No matter what, Based on a True Story is an amazing book. I’d still like to sit down and have a serious conversation with the author! (Though I have a feeling the ambiguity would persist.)

    Posted 5.11.17 Reply
  4. Rebeca wrote:

    I also felt very annoyed by the fact that in the story L’s intentions are not explained at all. You begin to question every single move she does but get confused. Was she obssesed with Delphine and wanted to become the only person in her life? Was she trying to steal Delphine’s identity? Was she trying to kill her as part of her obssesion? There are so many questions. I have come to believe that L is actually invented by Delphine. When she needed it the most, L appeared in her life and whenever she needed, L was there (like when Delphine fell down the stairs and L magically appeared after week of not seeing each other). It must have been something like pyschosis. This illness often provokes that you can’t longer interact with other people or to carry a normal life, like Delphine. Also, it makes you doubt what is reality of what it isn’t so it can make you create something or someone that can make you cope with things, so it makes me think that Delphine invented L to keep going and she wasn’t aware of that but others, like François was. L at first reassures Delphine but as time goes by, L turns against Delphine openly, like if her terrors finally turned against her. Last but not least, one proof of that is ending the book with “THE END”, L’s mark. It means that Delphine is also L. It’s one of my theories!

    Posted 5.24.17 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Now you’ve got me re-thinking the “L never existed theory.” But – I’m curious how ending the book with THE END* gives it proof that L didn’t exist. Do you mean that Delphine used L’s sign-off for her own book because L never existed except in Delphine’s head…so in a way Delphine and L were the same person?

      I’d never thought about it that way, but it kind of makes sense!

      Posted 5.24.17 Reply
      • Rebeca wrote:

        Yeah, i exactly meant that! Also it makes sense when Delphine starts looking for L. There is not a single trace of her, and the biggest proof that she was part of Delphine’s mind is the apartment L supposedly lived in. As i can remember, nobody lived before in that place when Delphine makes her research. I remember too that this psychosis thing causes the affected sometimes to try to kill themselves with no awareness of it, and this can be reflected on L trying to poison Delphine. This is the best book i have read in years, so mysterious and thrilling!

        Posted 5.25.17 Reply
        • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

          I know, right?! So much juice to ponder and talk about. Would be great for book clubs. But, I’m sure the ambiguity will drive some people crazy…it just made it memorable for me.

          Posted 5.29.17 Reply
  5. Catherine wrote:

    Great job with this one! I finally gave up and let publisher know I wasn’t going to review. I tend to think it was #3 from your list, but there comes a point where too much ambiguity feels like a cop out to me. As if the author couldn’t decide how they wanted to end things so they don’t. That bothered me, but I did find much of the story- and what happens to Delphine- fascinating.

    Posted 5.26.17 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      I feel like the ambiguity worked for me in this case…but sometimes does seem like a cop out. Of course now can’t think of an example….aah.

      Posted 5.29.17 Reply
  6. Vivian Csordas wrote:

    Hi girls! I’m from Brazil and I just read the book. I simply loved, many things going through my head, many questions and ideas. One thing I’m very intrigued is: who wrote the menacing letters to Delphine? Was it herself? What do you understand?

    I was always suspicious that L. was a part of Delphine, that was herself as she always wanted to be. In the end this was not very clear, but for me that’s the answer. The biggest question for me is that last paragraph. Fourteen-year-old L. would be 14-year-old Delphine? I was a bit confused in this part and I would like to know what you think!

    🙂 thanks and sorry about my english

    Posted 7.27.17 Reply
  7. Jill LeBlanc wrote:

    So who wrote the letters? She said it wasn’t L and that she wished it was. So who was it?

    Posted 8.30.17 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Great question…I was never really sure of the answer!

      Posted 9.2.17 Reply
  8. Michael Ritchie wrote:

    I think your interpretations 1 & 2 are awfully naive. It’s pretty clear to me that the book is fiction based, perhaps, on the way Vigan felt after the writing and reception of her earlier autobiographical book. Within the book, L is a figment of Delphine’s imagination, and Delphine (the character) actually wrote the book but *as* L, not as herself, hence “The End*” In other words, Delphine has had a personality fracture. I think Vigan (the real person) is externalizing the experience of separating (or not separating) fact and fiction, and also critiquing our current culture and its drive for “reality,” by giving us a completely fictional novel that masquerades as reality-based. But, of course, I know no more than anyone else here. (As for the threatening letters, I think Delphine wrote them herself, the beginning of her fracturing and an externalization of her guilt over the earlier book.)

    Posted 9.9.17 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Well, we don’t know what the intention was…so it’s open to interpretation. All I will say is the publisher marketed the book with this: “a chilling work of true-crime literature about a friendship gone terrifyingly toxic and the very nature of reality.” Makes you think twice, no?

      Posted 9.11.17 Reply
  9. Michelle harman wrote:

    Regarding the menacing letters, it stated that the last one was signed. But doesn’t reveal by who. While reading the book, I thought it might have been L. But we learned it wasn’t L. I also thought it might be Delphine herself, but her reaction didn’t coincide with that theory.

    I thought that L. was a figment of Delphine’s imagination, and believe that in cases of severe depression, someone might develop a split personality disorder and invent someone to help them cope. But what I am having a hard time reconciling is how Delphine gets to Courseilles. When she “escapes” that night, no vehicle is there. It’s not a stretch for me to believe the Delphine went to the store herself (but believing it was L.) But the pragmatic issue of tranportation has me wondering (but could be simple explanation of taxis/urbers).

    Posted 11.13.17 Reply
  10. Donna wrote:

    Hi guys, so I read the book and really enjoyed it. So, my theory around L and the ambiguity is that, possibly, Delphine’s writer’s black coupled with the hint that she had a troubled childhood, and a previous psychological record, may have meant she had split personality disorder. The writer’s block may have brough L. Out of the woodwork as L. Had previously been there at school yet she had no real recollection. We only have Delphines side of things, yet while she is sleeping etc, L is writing. This would mean that L is in charge and Delphine wouldn’t know as this personality is not active. It would also explain why she ‘moved around the kitchen with ease, as though she knew the place.’
    It would also explain why she kept saying she must write a book about ‘us’ and you ‘know what I’m talking about’ hinting that Delphine knows but doesn’t acknowledge it.
    L is how Delphine would like to be so she created the personality to take on life’s difficulities.
    Just a thought, what do you think???

    Posted 8.10.18 Reply
    • Megan wrote:

      Hi Donna,
      Finally, someone else who thinks Delphine has a split personality (in the book). Very early in the book, and I can’t remember what triggered it, I thought L. must be a separate personality of Delphine’s. I kept thinking I must be wrong but little clues and asides in the text would pop up every once in a while to confirm my feelings. When L. first mentions she was at college with Delphine, Delphine doesn’t remember her but remembers it was a “fragile” year. When this time is later brought up again, Delphine thinks “in fact the main memory I have of that year is of a slow descent. Now that period feels so distant it might as well belong to someone else. The physical state I was in probably contributed to the blurring of my memory.” This is, I think, the greatest proof that there is a split personality. Delphine needed L. as a ghostwriter, like she needed her for some reason during the year in college.

      As to how much of this is an overlap of the real Delphine’s life is anyone’s guess. I think de Vigan wanted all this ambiguity. It’s really creative. This book never really seemed like a thriller to me because I never really saw L. as a separate person, but I am glad to have read it.
      Who wrote the letters? Maybe it was Delphine but maybe she actually did receive these letters from a relative. I haven’t read de Vigan’s previous book which is supposed to parallel character Delphine’s book. The reader is told that the book is about her mom’s death (and I think it was supposed to be a suicide) but, at the end of the book, Delphine reveals to us that her mom is alive. I didn’t fully understand this part. Why isn’t she in Delphine’s life? Did her mom write the letters?

      Another thing that got me was when Delphine realizes she was about to write a book of L.’s life that is really outright theft from other authors. This has to be a real fear of authors who are voracious readers, that they’ll inadvertently have too much of someone else’s work in their own.

      Posted 9.23.18 Reply
  11. Polly wrote:

    If I had to guess, I would say the answer to how much of this book is true lies in the quote “And in any case, it could be a literary project to write a whole book that presents itself as a true story, a book inspired by so-called real events, but in which everything, or nearly everything, is invented.” After she got so many questions about the truth of her last book, maybe Vigan decided to con the reader as stated in the book. The book is based in reality. Vigan is an author in Paris, with these same relationships, and in the same stage of life. But L., the story in Based on a True Story, is completely made up, and the book is a social experiment. Tell the reader in the title that this is a true story, and watch them still not believe you. And why don’t they believe? Because writing is inherently fictional Vigan’s central thesis.
    Actually, this theory could also support L. being a figment of Delphine’s imagination. Not only is L. not real to the real life author, but she’s mere fiction to the fictional Delphine as well. In this case, even the real world isn’t safe from the grip of fiction.

    Posted 2.10.21 Reply
  12. Mary Priapi wrote:

    I just finished reading Based On a True Story and loved it!! I couldn’t put it down. I thought it was so original and interesting. Delphine wants the reader to question the existence of L. Does she really exist or not? It was not until the end that I realized she did not exist. But I am still questioning that assumption. I have never read a book like this and it is pure genius. Would recommend it and I can’t wait to read more of her books.

    Posted 7.15.22 Reply
  13. Angie Miller wrote:

    Just finished this, so it is fresh in my mind. If L. didn’t exist then who went to the store in Courseilles for provisions? Delphine couldn’t drive, much less walk, to get food and survive for weeks on her own. How would she have gotten to the house? That long of a ride/drive would have been documented somewhere (payment/driver/taxi). Those are trails she or François didn’t explore. Seems like he would have noticed if she ate all his pasta and one packet of soup. As well as, wondering where all the rat poison came from if she wasn’t mobile enough to go to the store. But on the other hand, he didn’t seem very supportive. Also when she went to the hospital, she had to be released to someone, I would think, and they might have had a record; or the emergency team could recall something.
    Personally I didn’t care for the writing style with very long paragraphs, but I read a translated version, and maybe that was designed to point out her psychosis that either existed or was created from this event.

    Posted 12.4.22 Reply

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