Guest Blog: How to Murder Your Life

I was offered this book, a memoir, to review, and (having read it) decided to pass it on to someone closer to Ms Marnell in age, who happens to work at the other end of the same industry.

So this is a guest blog by

Barbara Speed

the book:

How to Murder Your Life by Cat Marnell

published 2017

Cat Marnell
So now I was a beauty editor. In some ways, I look the part of Conde Nast hotshot - or at least I tried to. I wore fab Dior slap bracelets and yellow plastic Marni dresses, and I carried a three-thousand dollar black patent leather Lanvin tote that Jean [my editor] had plunked down on my desk one afternoon. (“This is.. Too shiny for me,” she’d explained).

My highlights were by Marie Robinson at Sally Hershberger Salon in the Meatpacking district; I had a chic lavender pedicure - Versace Heat Nail Lacquer V2008 - and I smelled obscure and expensive, like Susanne Lang Midnight Orchid and Colette Black Musk Oil.

But look closer. I was five four and ninety-seven pounds The aforementioned Lanvin tote was full of orange plastic bottles from Rite Aid; if you looked at my hands digging for them, you’d see that my fingernails were dirty...

commentary: Cat Marnell’s memoir has repeatedly been called - from its highly controversial announcement onwards - a “drug memoir”. Its Amazon page helpfully bolds out the shocking aspects of Marnell’s story, so you’re under no illusions about its selling points: “A pillhead. I was also an alcoholic-in-training who guzzled warm Veuve Clicquot after work alone in my boss’s office with the door closed; a conniving and manipulative uptown doctor-shopper; a salami-and-provolone-puking bulimic”.

It’s true - there’s hardly a page where drugs don’t appear, and while Marnell was apparently clean while she wrote it, the book has the frenetic, patchy feel of an author who isn’t 100% focussed.

But the best narrative, and perhaps the main one, isn’t about a woman and her drugs, but about a woman and her job. These stories are surprisingly rare - My Salinger Year is one notable exception, as is the unexpectedly brilliant Anne Hathaway and Robert de Niro film The Intern..

Marnell first hit headlines for her column on “unhealthy beauty” for the online magazine XOJane; a role she subsequently quit because she’d rather be “on the rooftop of Le Bain looking for shooting stars and smoking angel dust with my friends”.

But if nothing else, the memoir shows how badly Marnell wanted her ambitions to win, instead of her demons.

As a little girl, she made handmade beauty magazines, product captions and all. And without being patronising, what is astonishing in the story here is that she does work as hard as she does - she recalls getting in every day at 9:45 as Jane Pratt’s assistant, and “saying yes to everything”, loving every aspect of her often admin-based job. The brands, as above, are meticulously noted - the Versace, the salons, the lilac and yellow of mad 90s fashions.

It could be that the passage above, and the constant roll-call of brands, colours, drugs and, of course, makeup, is meant to be bathetic - like American Psycho, reciting all the surface aspects of life while exposing the darkness beneath. But How to Murder Your Life is peculiar because its horror and joy coexist quite happily: it is deeply horrible in places, and yet, somehow, you keep reading.

Marnell’s energy is infectious. It could be that the pedicure and shiny dress and bag and the sick woman underneath are totally at odds, but it could also be that life isn’t that simple. How to Murder Your Life refuses to be a misery memoir, just as it refuses to glamorise Marnell’s addiction (for every party with friends, there’s a night out Marnell attends, pathetically alone; or a friend who robs and abuses her).

The book’s dedication reads “For all the party girls”, and at its best it’s a little like her XOJane columns: neither taking the drug addict and making her a glamorous icon, nor damning her as totally fallen. Marnell first went truly “viral” for a piece about Whitney Houston’s death, using it to explain “why I will never shut up about my drug use”, a resolution which clearly carried forward to her book:

..when I am at my sickest, I put a huge amount of effort into fooling everyone: the hair, the makeup, the chatter. You either never see me—I've been so busy—or I'm my very best self in public before rushing home to numb out again. 
…[on writing about drugs] You call it oversharing; I call it a life instinct. Because look. Look how easy it is, even when you are Whitney fucking Houston, to withdraw your voice and pretend like you're a good girl and not mention that you're using. To slip silently into the water. To disappear.

The picture shows Miley Cyrus on the Jimmy Fallon show.


With thanks to the Guest Blogger, Barbara Speed. She has featured on the blog before with a guest entry, and she and I did joint pieces about World Literacy Day. She has also made uncredited appearances in blog photographs from time to time. She works as Comment Editor for the i newspaper.


  1. Replies
    1. All those drugs and that hard living - I'd have thought it'd be right up your street!

    2. The comparison (mere mention) with American Psycho has killed any interest for me. If I really really hated someone and wanted to irritate them beyond belief - I would buy them a copy of that book! I can't think of another book I've loathed more.

    3. Funnily enough, I have a lot of time for American Psycho, I think you'd expect our positions to be reversed. I don't love it, and it is very gruesome, but I thought it was clever. I am a big fan of Bret Easton Ellis.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful review. Honestly, I don't think it's for me. Still, it's good to read a well-written write-up of it.

    1. Absolutely Margot, it's not a book for everyone, but it's good to be aware of it. I think it might actually make for helpful reading for some people.

  3. I think I will avoid it too, I have a terrible reading habit of empathising with the people I am reading about, and I don't think I could handle an entire book of this, even if it sounds like a good insight into the industry.

    It sounds a bit like The Devil Wears Prada, (now there's a book that I have really mixed feelings about, but I definitely found the sequel monumentally annoying)

    1. Aha! I was curious so I just did some searching for Prada, and I detect hints of overwhelming unenthusiasm for Devil Wears Prada from your mentions of it. I'd agree too - I actually REALLY liked the film adaptation much more than the book, and thought the story as told in the film made much more sense.

      Do avoid the sequel though. I think Lauren Weisberger must have really naffed off her editor, and he let her write a book that made her sound like an utterly horrible, loathsome, despicable, spoiled, unpleasant person with no notion of any of this, smugly boasting about what a horrible, loathsome, etcetera, she was, and then published it. I rather enjoyed reading it as a study in smugly oblivious self-destruction (I'm guessing Andy is supposed to be a Mary Sue for the author). Not rereading anytime soon, obviously!!

    2. Good detection work Daniel! I disliked Devil/Prada very much, but enjoyed the film much more. As you say, the book didn't make sense half the time. Your description of the followup (which I was never tempted to read) made me fall about laughing - and just confirmed me in my view!
      The Cat Marnell book has much more going for it, but we don't want you ending up as a drug addict! It is very sad in fact, and you do worry about her...

    3. It also helps that Anne Hathaway, Emily Blunt and Glenn Close gave such excellent performances, so that you really felt they were more fully rounded and "real people" - Glenn Close gave Miranda some MUCH needed vulnerability and I think the bit at the end with Close's "actually, perhaps I MIGHT accord her a fraction of respect" one-eighth-smile made far more narrative sense. But yes, definitely one of those cases where the film, although taking liberties with the story, is better than the book.

    4. Meryl Streep! But I knew what you meant. One of her best performances, and I agree that all the acting is excellent, and they could pick the best bits of the plot.

    5. ... and of course, chance to see the great clothes...

    6. Oh dammit, I ALWAYS get Glenn and Meryl mixed up.... and judging by Google hits, I'm not the only one.

  4. A great review. The book may not be my thing, but it sounds very interesting. Thanks to Barbara for sharing her perspective on this book.

    1. Thanks Tracy, it was interesting to read the things Barbara picked out about the book.


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