Based on a True Story, by Elizabeth Renzetti

I read Elizabeth Renzetti’s début novel, Based on a True Story, for a completely shallow reason: I have a little internet crush on the author and her husband, Doug Saunders, both of whom write for Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. I enjoy their writing, and they seem like interesting people with cooler lives than mine. (Shit. They’re probably also people with Google alerts for their names. But opening a review of Based on a True Story with a little self-humiliation seems fitting, since its protagonists, Augusta and Frances, face some humiliations of their own).

Renzetti employs familiar women’s fiction and chick lit elements, but there’s a bitter, satirical edge to her story (one reviewer describes it as “a faint taste of arsenic“). Just as I was thinking to myself “This is like chick lit written by, I don’t know . . . Evelyn Waugh?” Renzetti dropped in an allusion to Waugh’s Hollywood satire The Loved One. I felt quite smug until I realized that the novel’s epigraph is from Waugh’s book; it wasn’t cleverness, just my subconscious memory at work.

At her best, Renzetti rises to the tart-tongued aphorism of that epigraph, which reads “Her heart was broken perhaps but it was a small inexpensive organ of local manufacture.” Based on a True Story is often darkly funny, but it’s also serious about the consequences of bad behaviour (and addiction) and the pain of failure at work and relationships. Truer to its women’s genre roots than to Waugh, perhaps, the ending is hopeful. I enjoyed it very much.

As the novel opens, washed-up 50-something actress Augusta is being kicked out of rehab again. She comments to her friend Alma on the lack of paparazzi recording her exit:

“I thought they loved this kind of filth. Fallen celebrities.”

Alma raised one pencilled brow at the word “celebrities.” She said, “I believe what they’re searching for is the unexpected fall.”

Meanwhile, reporter Frances is clinging to her job at a failing newspaper and crushing on her editor, Stanley, slavishly acceding to his risky story suggestions (perhaps Frances would like to interview some teens involved in dog-fighting? Frances is chased down the street by a pit-bull).

The two collide when Frances interviews Augusta about her memoir, Based on a True Story, and then writes an acidic profile pointing out that the title is entirely appropriate given Augusta’s distortions, and that Augusta has omitted almost all mention of her son Charles (from whom she has been estranged for many years) and the old flame, Ken Deller, who may or may not be Charles’ father, and who is now reportedly writing a book of his own, which Augusta fears will be Deller’s revenge on her.

When Frances needs a job and Augusta needs a ghost-writer, the two embark on an alcohol-soaked odyssey to California, where Augusta will appear at a fantasy con (on a panel about vampire medical shows; she starred in the short-lived Blood Bank) and both will confront their pasts: Augusta’s son and ex have migrated to LA, and Frances grew up in California. Renzetti’s arsenic-dipped pen takes on rehab (everywhere Augusta tries features an appalling circle time where family members show up to publicly confront the addicts); the seedy underbelly of LA (broke, they stay at the St. Tropez Motel, whose name is “the triumph of hope over evidence;” a prostitute negotiates from her mobility scooter outside their window); self-help gurus (Deller has reinvented himself as “Mr. Romance”) and more.

I don’t often enjoy conventional chick lit, because its humor is usually based on humiliating the heroine; women’s fiction, too, tends to strip everything from its protagonist before she can rebound (your dead husband was sleeping with three other women and you never noticed, and also you just got fired!). There were moments when Renzetti strayed into that territory, as when a drunken Augusta and Frances spy on Augusta’s son Charles at the bookstore where he works and are discovered when they tip over a tableful of books.

But for the most part, though both women fall pretty low, the humor didn’t make me cringe. I think there are several reasons for that:

  1. The narration is third person, so there’s more distance from the characters than you typically get in chick lit.
  2. Frances and Augusta are self-aware, walking open-eyed into their mistakes rather than being hapless victims. And they do eventually try to change.
  3. Their weaknesses aren’t contrasted with the strengths of an idealized man they adore. Frances may have a thing for her boss, but she recognizes his imperfections. He’s no Mark Darcy. Everyone’s struggling here–and everyone’s a target of both satire and sympathy.
  4. They both have work they love, even if their careers are at a low point. Augusta blossoms for an audience (which can be a problem in life, but makes her a good actress). Frances loses her reporting job because her industry is in a tail-spin, not because she’s bad at it.

This is a fast-moving, funny novel, but there’s a vein of seriousness underneath. Chick lit heroines tend to stumble into their good luck: the fantasy the books offer is being loved because of your imperfections and pratfalls, not in spite of them. Frances and Augusta are, at the end of Based on a True Story, beginning to make their own luck, and it’s going to take a lot of hard work, forgiveness, and support from others. The growing friendship between the two women is more central to the book than their relationships with the men in their lives. All of those things make this good for more than a laugh.

Someone (Russell Lynes, thanks Google) once said, “Every good journalist has a novel in him – which is an excellent place for it.” I’m glad Elizabeth Renzetti’s novel got out, and I hope there are more to come.

P.S. Given my interest in urbanism, I plan to nurture my cool couple crush by adding Doug Saunders’ Arrival City to my reading list. Bet it won’t be as much fun as Based on a True Story, though.

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