Recent Reads: How to Murder Your Life

If she hadn't written it, Cat Marnell would probably describe her memoir, How to Murder Your Life, as being 'so difficult to read!' Hyperbole is Marnell's thing. As are exclamation marks. Her lust for life is, one one hand, fabulous (and probably linked to her amphetamine issues); on the other hand, it feels a bit off when she's signing off sentences about abortion and emotional abuse with lashings of punchy punctuation.

It's hard to sympathise with Marnell as you plod through her book, which chronicles her spiral into addiction, while still managing to make progress in her enviable beauty writing career, despite always turning up to work late, and often not at all. While, of course, addiction has enough tragic qualities to make for compelling reading fodder, Cat Marnell writes about it in the blinkered way that only a grossly privileged, privately educated, fully employed white girl can. We learn that, after being shipped off to school, Marnell hits her teens, discovers drugs, gets pregnant by her posh, cheating boyfriend, and gets an abortion paid for by her parents. Then, just when you thought she couldn't become more of a rich-American-teen cliché, Marnell develops an amphetamine habit, partly fuelled by her father, a doctor, who dutifully writes her prescriptions for ADHD medication for many years to come. Once all grown up and living the high life (literally) in New York – by this point fully immersed in her various addictions and unable to get out of bed in the morning  – Marnell still manages to land writing jobs with respected publications, and eventually becomes the Beauty Editor of Lucky, because apparently all you need to do to cover up the fact that you haven't slept in days is applying layers of expensive fake tan.

How to Murder Your Life is an easy, zippy read – kind of like a gushing piece in a teen magazine – and Marnell's ability to hold a career together while completely falling apart (she overdoses multiple times) is surprising. But you can't help but think it as baffling that her employers kept her on, despite undoubtedly having more than just a faint idea of what was going on in her personal life. Although she mentions several times that her co-workers had no idea she was gulping down pills while everyone else was having a coffee break, Marnell seemed to be as blunt about her addiction in the workplace as she is within the pages of her memoir – she recalls texting her then-boss, XOJane's Jane Pratt, to say that she couldn't make it into work because she took some heroin the night before and was consequently feeling pretty sick the morning after.

I discovered Marnell in the December 2012 issue of Elle, wherein she explained that she'd been fired from her job at XOJane (R.I.P). She sent a stream of consciousness to a New York Post diarist about preferring to smoke PCP on the rooftop of Le Bain than go to work every day like a normal person. I proceeded to pore over Marnell's back catalogue of work and, when I heard that she was writing a memoir, I knew I'd end up buying it. I also knew I'd enjoy reading it in the way that we all 'enjoy' car crash content, be it on the TV or spread across the pages of Take a Break. Enjoy is the wrong word; it's more of a voyeuristic – but very human – reaction to the perverse. 

Given its recent interest in dramas that tackle difficult situations (see Thirteen Reasons Why and the recently announced film To the Bone), I could easily see Netflix dramatising Marnell's story – it would be like a murkier, messier, real-life Gossip Girl but, similarly to the book itself, it'd run the risk of making drug use seem almost glamorous. I realise that this review is coming across as negative, but despite not being able to relate to Marnell's life choices, I didn't hate this book. I read it all in a day, which says a lot as I'm a serial book-ditcher. Exclamation marks aside, Marnell is a compelling writer, and there's much to be said for her strength of spirit; underneath all the messiness, she was clearly passionate about her career and was still (sort of) managing to turn up to work. Inevitably, it all comes crashing down for her as the book progress, and I felt that this was the only point in the story where Marnell's navel-gazing dissipates and, as a reader, you begin to feel bad for her. However, losing her job didn't mean that Cat couldn't pay her bills. There are no bleak tales of the troubled protagonist here – no evictions, money worries or hitting-rock-bottoms that you might find in other addiction memoirs. We're reminded of Marnell's parents' financial prosperity throughout the book, and it does make you wonder how their daughter would have turned out if they hadn't been able to check her into very exclusive, very expensive rehab centres. And, you know, if they didn't send her Adderall for years on end.

Marnell's prose is annoyingly self-absorbed in parts – a symptom of her addict personality that all those layers of make-up and peroxide can't quite cover. Despite her wealth and her glossy career, How to Murder Your Life proves that she's just another addict, stuck in repetitive cycles of scoring her poison, getting high, doing something dumb and then doing it all over again. And again. The predictability of Cat's routines begins to grate once you're about halfway through the book – you already know what will happen next – but the drama keeps you going. When you're reading 300+ pages written by someone whose habits haven't changed for over a decade, what more can you really expect?

Grace Howard