ONE TO WATCH OUT FOR: Based on a True Story by Elizabeth Renzetti

Article published on March 13, 2015.

Ms Renzetti is Canadian and has had an extensive career in Canadian newspapers. So far, so predictable except that her debut Based on a True Story couldn’t be more British in flavour. Not one of those Americans you see in US shows essaying an English-accent-kind-of-British. (Don Cheadle in Ocean’s Eleven comes to mind.)

No, it would seem that between 2004 and 2013 when she lived in London (working for the Globe and Mail’s European Desk) Elizabeth got us down to a T. Her command of our hang ups and mannerisms is masterly.

Checking out elizabethrenzetti.com, it would seem that Marianne Faithful was the inspiration:

I blame it all on Marianne Faithfull, and her drugs. Twenty years ago, I arrived in a Toronto hotel room to interview the singer about her just-released memoir, called, with no strain on anyone’s imagination, Faithfull.

She staggered a little on her high heels; it was after lunch, and lunch consisted of white wine and possibly not much else. She was smoking American cigarettes, and reading Osip Mandelstam, and nursing an abscessed tooth. “Marianne,” called the publicist, on the phone with a dentist, “is there any drug you’re allergic to?”

She paused just a moment, long enough for every eye in the room to turn her way. Then she answered, in a voice like a fur coat snagged on a nail, “No, darling. There’s no drug I’m allergic to.”

So, put Marianne centre stage in your mind and hang on to your hats as she becomes Augusta Price – the book opens with the immortal line, “It was not the first time she’d been asked to leave a clinic.” Having lived the theatrical life and been a soap star Augusta now finds herself cast aside, at least partly – well, mainly – because she can’t resist a drink, any drink, night or day.

With options and friends running out, Augusta’s last option appears to be volume two of her memoirs, not previously planned until Based on a True Story: A Memoir of Sorts was a surprising bestseller. The thought fills her with horror until she is interviewed by long-suffering Frances Bleeker for a freesheet called London Advance. Frances, too, is on her uppers and the thought of being paid to be Augusta’s ghost-writer is sufficient to outweigh her reservations about being a minder.

The action does re-locate to Los Angeles later in the book but the British approach to id, ego and super-ego remains consistent. Augusta teeters on the knife edge of our sympathies and in real life I suspect you’d have said, enough is enough some time ago. So it’s testimony to the author that we allow our heroine to totter on her way, cleavage cannily displayed to any wide-eyed man who can be suckered into letting Augusta get away with murder.

This is not high literature – I knew that when I found myself sniggering and then laughing out loud at Ms Renzetti’s precision with a line. Comic timing is highly prized among actors but it’s a more difficult act to pull off with the written word – especially when there’s no canned laughter.

So, if you’ve had enough Proust and Dostoevsky for this week, give yourself a break and give Based on a True Story a try. You’ll feel better afterwards.

Guy Pringle, March 2015

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