I’ll come right out and say it: I’m a big Elizabeth Renzetti fan. Her columns, which appear on the second page of this paper every weekend, often have me pumping my fist and shouting, “Yes, exactly!” to anyone who will listen. When I heard she had a novel coming out, I might have cheered. (Okay, I definitely cheered.) But then I got worried. The novel, called Based on a True Story, was widely described as funny genre-fiction about celebrities in London and Los Angeles, a sordid tale that followed the downward trajectory and possible redemption of an aging glamour queen. Renzetti is one of the smartest writers I know, I thought. But she’s written a book with a lurid pink cover and one of my friends just told me she can’t wait to bring it with her to the beach this summer.
I needn’t have worried. With Based on a True Story, Renzetti has offered up a story that is fun to read – because this novel is a hell of a lot of fun; there’s even an airplane scene reminiscent of the one from the film Bridesmaids that made me laugh so hard I cried – but that is also, like Renzetti’s newspaper writing, incisive, street-wise, and written with the deft hand of a truly talented scribe. Every single sentence (one of my favourites happens when central character Augusta Price and her only friend Alma, both fallen starlets, are sitting at an empty table at a celebrity autograph show, “trying not to ponder the algebra of their humiliation.”) is perfectly rendered. I laughed, but I also cried. And the tears were all the more poignant because they were so unexpected.
The chapters are written from the perspectives of three characters: Augusta, once famous for her acting career but now famous for her spectacularly drug-addled decline into mid-life; Frances, the star of her journalism school class, who has now been sacked from a London newspaper and is spiraling with alarming speed away from the life she always believed would be hers, as well as the rumpled, dying-breed newspaper editor she loves; and Kenneth Deller, Augusta’s old lover, who still adores her despite her many, many failings, and who may or may not have fathered her only child during an ayahuasca-fuelled orgy. (See what I mean by this book being a lot of fun?)
On the outside of it all is the son, Charlie – Charles, now that he has grown up. To cite just a few examples of the bad parenting Augusta inflicted on the poor boy, she left his grade school band recital to have sex with one of his boarding school classmates in the bathroom, and tossed him out onto the street when he was 16 – but does not remember doing this because she was so drunk and/or high. At the outset of the novel, Augusta has not seen or attempted to contact Charles in seven years. She has published a surprisingly successful memoir (people just can’t seem to look away from a train wreck, in life and in fiction) and has scarcely mentioned him or his (maybe) father, but this turns out to be borne out of emotional self-preservation, not neglect.
It is when Augusta’s maternal failings are described that Renzetti’s writing is at its most moving. It’s easy to despise and dismiss addicts who hurt people, but a character like Augusta paints a true portrait of the powerlessness addicts experience at the hands of their own weaknesses. Augusta describes herself as a new mother, feeling constantly as though she was “trying to knit a sweater while wearing oven mitts.” (What mother of a newborn has not felt this way when attempting, in the middle of the night, to determine the reason for all the crying? Add to this withdrawal symptoms from booze and painkillers and you’ve got a recipe for unbearable.)
Later, she relays a story to Frances, who has become an unlikely ally and is now traveling from London to L.A. with Augusta to ghost write her next book and help her avenge perceived crimes she believes her ex-lover is about to commit in the form of a revenge memoir, about the moment she first realized she wasn’t meant to be a mother. It was during a school trip to a dinosaur museum she attended with Charlie. At the end of the day, the class stopped at a fountain in a courtyard and Augusta threw in a coin, closed her eyes and thought, I hope I’ve got enough Valium to see me through the week. “One of the other mums chucked her coin in, and she turned to me. I can still see the smile on her face. She said, ‘Do you think there will ever come a day when we’ll make a wish that’s about ourselves, and not about our kids?’”
While the narrative takes some fairly absurd twists and turns – there are many drunken exploits, including one especially memorable moment involving a mechanical bull – it also leads the reader along the path of understanding the mind of a celebrity, and especially an actress like Augusta, who is a human being at the root of it all, but a human being defined by her sex appeal and ability to perform. There are people like this in the world. We all know who they are. We all delight when they fall down, but we shouldn’t. This book also offers insight into addiction, insecurity, the way our upbringings define us, and the nature of true love, how blind it can be – but also how it, above all else, can be what raises a person out of the depths of failure and despair.
Renzetti has revealed that she was inspired to write a character like Augusta by Marianne Faithfull, who is also known for staggering through life on high heels, while being high, in general. But still, Faithfull, like Augusta, always managed to maintain the allure that made both Mick Jagger and Keith Richards fall in love with her. Whenever I think of Faithfull, I don’t think of the tales of her partying and pill popping, though. I think of a story I heard once – from my dad, I think – about how the song Wild Horses, so achingly beautiful and filled with longing, was inspired by a visit Mick Jagger paid to Faithfull’s hospital room after she had miscarried his child and overdosed on pills. As the story goes, he pleaded with her not to die on him. And she is reported to have said, “Honey, wild horses couldn’t drag me away.”
Or perhaps that’s not really how it went – perhaps that’s just a rumour, a tale only based on a true story.
Marissa Stapley’s novel Mating for Life comes out this month.