Book Review: THE HOT ONE by Carolyn Murnick

I’m still recovering from surgery, which means my reviewing and reading pace has gone way down while I relax and nap. (Lots of naps!) I’m in the mood to catch up with older releases I’ve missed over the past few years, and that’s why it feels like the perfect time to review The Hot One, a memoir that’s been near the top of my TBR list since it first came out in 2017.

The Hot One, dramatically subtitled A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder, is about the murder of writer and editor Carolyn Murnick’s childhood best friend, Ashley, who was the victim of a serial killer in the early 2000s. It’s also about the ways our adult selves diverge from our child and adolescent ones, and especially all the ways women are limited by one-dimensional definitions (for example, “the hot one” vs. “the smart one”).

The premise is powerful and The Hot One’s first third is excellent, but the book soon fizzles into what I found to be boring, confusing navel gazing. You can read my full review below.


The Hot One Cover

The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder by Carolyn Murnick

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  • publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • publication date: hardcover in 2017, paperback in 2018
  • length: 272 pages (paperback)

In the courtroom I had seen in a new way what it looks like when a life is cut off at twenty-two. All the messy baby fat of emotional immaturity still stuck on you for eternity, paraded out for everyone to see.

–from The Hot One by Carolyn Murnick

A woman’s murder is never just her murder: it’s a stage for social commentary and catharsis, too. Usually it’s men drawing the conclusions, but in the true crime memoir The Hot One, it’s the victim’s female friend, Carolyn Murnick. Murnick uses the murder of her childhood friend Ashley as a jumping off point for big ideas about friendship, men, women, girls, the criminal justice system (kind of), journalism, sex, sex work, drugs, and most of all, herself.

Doesn’t that sound like a lot? It is, at least for Murnick. Her intense emotion is palpable and her courage in writing about this experience is admirable. But on the page, The Hot One feels remarkably understuffed. It’s simultaneously airy and swampy, overly personal and too broadly political, very dry and also too messy.

The memoir does crackle along nicely in its first third, in which Murnick details her friendship with Ashley and its tragic end. Murnick and Ashley were not close at the time of Ashley’s murder, and this is the best part of the book, although it is of course the worst part for Murnick. She is angry at herself for abandoning Ashley; she is angry at Ashley for abandoning her; she is angry at the fact of the murder for destroying any chance at reconciliation. That’s compelling stuff.

Crucially, it’s compelling stuff that also has a linear narrative. Murnick and Ashley become inseparable; they drift apart; the murder happens. It’s an arc.

It’s when that arc transitions into Murnick’s solo journey to come to terms with the murder that The Hot One becomes a voyeuristic-feeling slog, like you’re overhearing a stranger’s rambling therapy session rather than reading words assembled for publication. It’s told out of order, but not very effectively. I don’t mind piecing things together for myself, but it would be nice if it felt like I had the whole puzzle rather than odd parts.

I have the utmost respect for what Murnick has been through, and I want to be clear that in no way do I think the actions or emotions she describes in The Hot One are unseemly or wrong. I just think that they’re her actions and emotions, deeply private and inaccessible to me, and that unfortunately, The Hot One gives me little reason or opportunity to get invested in them. When Murnick is writing about Ashley, her prose shines. When she’s writing about herself, it just thuds. Unfortunately, this book is mostly her writing about herself.

The Hot One hammers certain points home again and again: that Ashley did sex work, that she was hot and flirty and confident, that she was slut-shamed and a drug user and living a double life, and that her murder was left unsolved for years partially because of all those things. (It was assumed she was killed by a jilted lover or that she had gotten tangled up in drugs or trafficking.) These things are stated and restated so many times that I found myself just skimming over them whenever they reappeared.

But The Hot One then leaves other points desperately unclear. There are weird interludes in the book where Murnick visits with astrology-obsessed friends who talk about how serial killers are often thwarted water signs. She visits a guy who’d once gone on a date with Ashley, and almost ends up sleeping with him herself, until he reveals himself to be kind of a cad. She’s asked to testify after tons of writing about how she was afraid to testify…and then we get barely any details about that testimony or what it felt like.

It’s not that these events are “wrong” or “unbelievable.” Again, nothing about Murnick’s experiences could be wrong or unbelievable in this traumatic context. It’s that the way she transcribes them for readers is murky, and worse, boring. I went from loving the book in its first chapters to loathing it by its midpoint, simply because I couldn’t understand what was going on or why it was relevant.

I also think Murnick’s reaches for political relevance are clumsy, especially with the new afterword in the paperback addition, which tries to tie the memoir to the #MeToo movement and to Murnick’s pregnancy. Her points about the ways girls both are defined and define themselves with narrow concepts like “the hot one” or “the smart one” are spot on, because they’re based in her experience. Her points about, say, the male gaze are…less spot on, since they veer wildly between talking about men’s literal gaze and the feminist concept of the male gaze without clearly distinguishing the two. Lots of other feminist concepts get similarly bungled, and the courtroom and criminal justice sections are frustratingly thin.

Like Emma Cline did in her (fictional) book about murder, The Girls, Murnick seems determined to draw wide conclusions from one narrow experience when the narrow experience is actually more compelling on its own. And as in The Girls, Murnick writes about the experiences of upper/upper middle class white girls without really acknowledging that many other kinds of girls exist, with many other archetypes than just “the smart one” or “the hot one” working against them.

The Hot One is of course different from The Girls, because Murnick is writing about her own experience. Yet it’s almost worse, in a way, since The Hot One has plenty of room for interesting research that could have filled those gaps, whereas The Girls was confined to a tighter narrative structure.

Murnick has published several excellent essays about her experience, including one that’s a condensed excerpt from this book, which is what motivated me to buy my own copy. In short form, her points are salient and gripping. But spun out into a whole book, they fizzle. It’s terribly disappointing considering how much I adored that excerpt.

The Hot One is a promising new kind of true crime memoir: one that turns its voyeuristic gaze on its author and her baggage, rather than on all the gory, salacious details of the crime. I just wish it had actually delivered on that promise. ★★☆☆☆

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I purchased my own copy of The Hot One and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: INVITATION TO A BONFIRE by Adrienne Celt

Invitation to a Bonfire is a slow-burning reimagining of Vladimir Nabokov’s marriage, told mostly through the eyes of the fictional Zoya, a boarding school employee who falls in love first with “Lev Orlov’s” (the Nabokov insert’s) books and then with the man himself. Over the course of the 1930s, she finds herself in a vicious–and murderous–love triangle with him and his wife. It’s an extraordinary premise that unfortunately feels sordid in execution. The novel careens from a slow first half, beginning in Zoya’s childhood in the Soviet Union and inching through her time as a scholarship student and greenhouse employee, to a breakneck (and murderous) second half that goes off not so much with a blaze as an incomprehensible flash-bang that left me frustrated and dazed. The novel is full of keen observations (especially about life as a Soviet immigrant to America) and razor-sharp turns of phrase, but as a story, I found it extraordinarily unsatisfying.

You can read my full review below.


Invitation to a Bonfire Cover

Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt

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  • publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
  • publication date: June 5, 2018
  • length: 256 pages
  • cover price: $26.00

No one minded theft or inconsistency, even vitriol, so long as it meant you were making a statement. This was my first great lesson in being American, and I took it to heart.

Invitation to a Bonfire

I’m struck by how much I find my gut creeping into my feelings about books, no matter how hard I try to get my reviewing down to a science. I like this because X, I don’t like this because Y, I’ll tell myself smugly when I’m not reading. The problem is that as soon as I start reading, those lofty theories fly out the window. It’s all about me and the book, and sometimes we hit it off, and sometimes we don’t.

I did not hit it off with Invitation to a Bonfire, and while I have a few inklings as to why, the intensity of my dislike surprises me.

Invitation to a Bonfire follows a young Soviet American woman named Zoya who falls in love with Soviet author Leo Orlov, a stand-in for Vladimir Nabokov. Zoya also falls into a standoff with his calculating wife, Vera, based on Nabokov’s actual wife, Véra. It’s framed as a collection of found papers including journals and love letters, a device that I think works not at all, and it’s about as slow of a slow burn as you’re likely to find in literary fiction.

I enjoyed this book most when Adrienne Celt was writing about Zoya’s experience as the daughter of a Red revolutionary-turned-traitor. The Soviet Union holds such a cartoonishly evil and exaggerated place in American culture that the subtlety Celt brought to its politics was refreshing and welcome. The problem is that as soon as Celt turns to the setting of an exclusive boarding school in 1930s America, where Zoya is sent as a scholarship student and where she works after graduation, the tension pops like a balloon and never comes back.

I hammer on this point to the degree that family and friends roll their eyes when they hear me say it, but historical fiction is never really about the past–it’s about the present, and over and over I found myself frustrated with how little Invitation to a Bonfire seems to be about the past or the present. The supposed “historical” documents Celt uses (including oral histories) feel not at all like something written in the 1930s. The boarding school is about as clichéd and cardboard a boarding school setting as it gets; it could have been set in the ’80s or ’90s instead and I wouldn’t have noticed. There’s so little genuine American historical detail–though the Soviet stuff is well done–that it left me unmoored and uncaring about anything that happened.

The novel seems uncertain if it’s expecting you to know about Vladimir Nabokov’s marriage or not. I’ve never read Lolita or anything else of his work, so I went into this novel pretty cold except for a brief scan of his Wikipedia page. As far as I can tell, Celt has based the novel very loosely on actually events, dropping in wink-wink-nudge-nudge Easter eggs: Felice is the novel’s version of Lolita; in Orlov’s love letters, he refers to names as having colors, and Nabokov himself was a renowned synesthete. The problem is that they felt to me like the literary version of after-credits scenes in Marvel movies: cool bonuses, but utterly unnecessary. In a novel that’s already agonizingly slow, that Celt chooses to devote so much energy to establishing her almost-Nabokov is frustrating.

Celt also spends a lot of time establishing Vera’s background as upper-crust and Zoya’s as a half-step above peasantry; class is a crux of the novel even after Zoya comes to America, a poor student at an overwhelmingly rich school. But in real life, Véra was Russian Jewish and faced overwhelming anti-Semitism that very much shaped her life and Nabokov’s. It’s not so much that I think Celt has an obligation to include every real-world detail–as I said, Invitation to a Bonfire is an extremely loose adaptation–as that I think it’s odd she includes so much peripheral detail about Nabokov and so little about Véra. The imagination of the novel feels lumpy, coming in clumps when I don’t want it there, yet feeling oddly barren when it would be most useful.

I could have forgiven most if not all of that if the core murder mystery were more effective, but it’s not. About halfway through, the novel goes from extremely predictable to off-the-walls nuts. I could see Celt’s motions behind the curtain so clearly that it made me roll my eyes. Zoya and Lev’s love story is as flimsy as tissue paper; there are plot holes so big you could drive a tank through them. I had to read over the final couple of pages several times just to understand what I was reading because it was such a polar flip from what the first half seemed to be leading up to.

I don’t like being made to feel stupid while reading a novel, and Invitation to a Bonfire made me feel somehow simultaneously stupid and overly smart. There’s so much here that I wanted to love: a fascinating history, a fiery love story, crimes of passion. Celt’s prose is perfectly serviceable and sometimes even stunningly beautiful. The DNA is all there. So why didn’t it come together for me?

I think I can place the fatal flaw in the novel, but it might really be in me as a reader, and I hate that. I hate writing negative reviews because they remind me of the subjectivity and mundanity of my own opinions more than anything else, though they’re not fundamentally different than my positive ones: expressions of how a particular book struck me at a particular time, expressions that are affected by a smorgasbord of things that are not actually the book or the author’s fault.

No matter the root cause, for me, Invitation to a Bonfire fizzles instead of blazes. What a shame. ★★☆☆☆


My copy of Invitation to a Bonfire came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Review: PRETEND WE ARE LOVELY by Noley Reid

Monday Reviews

Pretend We Are Lovely by Noley Reid

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publisher: Tin House Books

publication date: July 18, 2017

9781941040669As you may recall from Tuesday’s post on triggering books and when to keep reading, I struggled a lot with this book. I did finish it, but not only did I find it painful, I also find it lacking in any positive respite or catharsis. Pretend We Are Lovely drags, and the slipperiness of its narrative structure gives an effect more like incoherence than profundity. While there are treasures to be found here, they are few and far between in a narrative full of things I didn’t care about and nearly devoid of things I did.

Pretend We Are Lovely tells the story of a summer and fall in the lives of a Virginia family in the 1980s. The Sobel family, made up of parents Francie and Tate and daughters Enid and Vivvy, all suffer from a tortured and toxic relationship with food. Overweight philosophy professor Tate has moved out and embarked on an affair with one of his students (a kind and curvaceous donut shop employee, just in case you missed the symbolism), and Francie sinks ever-further into binge-purge cycles and shockingly nasty treatment of her daughters. Enid, 10, is chubby, mercilessly bullied, and always thinking of her next meal. Vivvy, 12, is struggling with confusing feelings towards girls and an even more confusing apathy towards boys, along with a punishing desire to be as thin as her mother.

As if that weren’t enough, there’s the suspicious death of Enid and Vivvy’s voraciously hungry older brother, Sheldon, whom Francie hit and killed with her car years ago. This incident, supposedly the driving force behind all the other problems, was incomprehensible to me. I was hoping answers–how and why Sheldon died–would be revealed at the end, but they weren’t, leaving me even more frustrated and confused by the last page than I’d been at the end of the first chapter.

Reid’s decision to tell the story from the rotating perspectives of all four characters, switching perspectives within chapters (and sometimes even paragraph-to-paragraph), worsens the confusion. Each Sobel does have a distinct and interesting voice, but they spend so much of the book separated from each other and lost in thoughts of the past that I didn’t understand what was supposed to be currently happening for at least half of the book. All I got was jolt of unpleasant emotion after jolt of unpleasant emotion, utterly unconnected to plot events.

The other problem with Pretend We Are Lovely’s shifting perspectives is that they remove all tension from the narrative. I can’t get mad about how Vivvy treats Enid because in the next paragraph I am told exactly why Vivvy is lashing out. I can’t get mad on Francie’s behalf at Tate for having an affair because I know Tate’s exact reasons for having the affair. I think the effect is supposed to trigger something like sadness about the miscommunications inherent in family, but instead, I found it boring.

There were two things I really, really loved about this book, and both involved Vivvy: Vivvy and Enid’s sister relationship, and the Reid’s delicate touch when writing about Vivvy’s feelings for other girls. Admittedly, I’m a sister partial to sister stories, and a lesbian partial to lesbian stories, so I don’t know if these were the best parts of the book or just the ones that pushed my buttons. But with every Francie and Tate scene, and some of the Enid scenes, I found myself wanting to be back with Vivvy.

For me at least, Pretend We Are Lovely was a Vivvy story trapped inside a family story, and the promise of the book I wanted trapped inside this book that I didn’t want made my reading experience even more tortuous. I wonder what this book might have looked like had its narrative been reorganized around Vivvy, perhaps even as a literary YA novel. I know her story would have meant a lot to me as a teen struggling to come out.

Other aspects that showed promise were the book’s commentary on kids’ nastiness toward other kids–boys, especially, hold an air of sexual menace, including a couple of truly disturbing assaults on Enid and Vivvy by classmates and neighbors–and Reid’s prose style, which I found refreshingly simple and affecting. But these things are utterly buried under the weight of convoluted narrative, spoiling their power.

Pretend We Are Lovely really is lovely in places, but its hazy plot and countless unresolved and underdeveloped sub-plots ruin the effect. 2/5 stars.

My copy of Pretend We Are Lovely came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.