Book review: The Hot One, by Carolyn Murnick
New York magazine editor Carolyn Murnick was childhood best friends with Ashley Ellerin, growing up in suburban New Jersey. Attending different high schools, then Ashley’s relocation to her home state of California, the friendship began developing the natural divide that accompanies growing up and apart.
But unlike many similar friendships, the two maintain some level of connection, and Ashley visits Carolyn in New York City where she attends college. As they catch up, Ashley relates her lifestyle in the druggy, casually glamorous, sex-as-commodity world of Los Angeles celebrity culture. Ashley is nominally enrolled in fashion school but seems to mostly work as a stripper and sometime escort, often flying to Las Vegas for working weekends.
Shocked but trying not to appear naive or prude, Carolyn wonders what’s led her friend to a life of stripping, drug-dabbling and light sex work.
Shortly after their last meeting, in 2001, she receives the news that Ashley is dead at age 22, murdered in her Hollywood Hills home. The case goes cold and remains so for a long time.
Around 2008, Ashley’s presumed killer, Michael Gargiulo (not a spoiler!) was apprehended through links to other crimes. He appears to be a serial killer or at least on the path to becoming one. His crimes are particularly nasty and brutal; Murnick is understandably disturbed and struggles through an unusual grieving process – she knew she was growing apart from this person who was once another half of her, who helped her understand strong female bonds, yet she didn’t recognize who that woman had become, or was becoming, when they last met.
With the distance of years since Ashley’s death, Murnick becomes obsessed with Ashley’s case, Gargiulo’s trial, exploring what was happening in Ashley’s life leading up to her death, and the upsetting details of her murder.
She makes several trips to LA and other important locations in Ashley’s past. The primary event is attending Gargiulo’s lengthy pretrial hearings, where she connects with Ashley’s LA friends and media covering the case (including standout LA Weekly and People crime reporter Christine Pelisek, who reported extensively on and recently wrote a great account of LA’s Grim Sleeper case).
The Hot One covers Murnick’s processes, thought and grieving, as she elegizes their friendship and considers how it shaped her (in their tween duo, she fit the trope of “the smart one,” Ashley “the hot one,” hence the title.) She wants to come to terms with Ashley’s death and its circumstances, so discordant with the girl she once knew.
Murnick writes in an observational, sometimes stream-of-consciousness style. I like that, and it serves her exploratory purposes well – she admits she’s often not sure what she’s searching for or trying to do, nothing brings Ashley back, their friendship was already drifting, she can’t imagine what closure would look like, and she’s unsure what Ashley would’ve wanted in terms of justice or remembrance. Sometimes through this style she generates truly beautiful, wistful writing.
But sometimes the internal monologue goes too far, segueing from a related or relatable course, distracting from what’s otherwise a meaningful narrative. In addition to speculating about why she feels her own feelings and exploring various reasons behind why or how something occurred, Murnick makes some uncomfortable projections on the motivations and actions of others, or unnecessary assumptions that seemed designed to read as creatively literary but didn’t fit the stories or style.
Murnick addresses heavy, important themes, including the male gaze and what it does to a woman’s personal development, sense of self, and place in the world. This is a story that always needs telling. I think it’s still hard for some men to understand what women are casually subjected to our entire lives, how damaging, confusing, and traumatic it can be.
She analyzes it gracefully and smartly, connecting to how she perceived the pair growing up, that “hot one” label, showing how self-perception shaped her choices and conversely, how Ashley’s very different ones were potentially influenced by the way men viewed and treated her.
This isn’t even touching on the reprehensible slut-shaming that Gargiulo’s defense engages in. It’s powerful, important stuff, and Murnick is thoughtful and careful in handling it.
Perhaps there was some part of me that hoped learning more about what happened to Ashley would explain what had happened to me, too. How did who she was at the end connect to who she was at the beginning, when I knew her? In what ways did the person I was now have its roots in who we were together?
It’s equally personal memoir as it is crime story. These stories were inextricably linked for the author; Ashley’s demise and whether her glitzy but seedy Hollywood lifestyle played a role, and that of Murnick’s own journey of self-exploration, wondering how she and her onetime best friend turned out so differently. I didn’t always like that topic, because reasoning can’t be understandable this one-sidedly, if at all, and we hear little from Ashley herself. She’s portrayed almost entirely through others’ perceptions, projections and memories of her.
Of course, that’s a tall order since Ashley’s gone, but I’d hoped for something like diary entries, recordings, or recollections of exact words. There’s one poignant, sentimental letter she wrote to Murnick that was an excellent inclusion, giving a glimpse of the sadly adult emotion and sentimentality beneath the jaded exterior she’d begun displaying at such a relatively young age.
It also struck me that one line that was directly quoted was a firm denial about being Ashton Kutcher’s girlfriend. Ashley was casually seeing Kutcher when she died; in fact, he came to her home where she lay dead inside to pick her up for a date. Yet Googling her case, every story links her to him.
Even in death she’s forever known as some celebrity’s onetime girlfriend. I hope her case is finally resolved through her murderer’s trial (all of his victims need this resolution), and I hope she gets acknowledged as more than Ashton Kutcher’s date. It made me sad.
The case remains active; Gargiulo hit too-common snags of the criminal justice system, including some he orchestrated himself. I read that his trial is scheduled to resume shortly, potentially this fall. I’d love to see Murnick write a followup piece, because the book feels unfinished. That’s not her fault, of course; after the lengthy preliminary hearings, the trial was repeatedly delayed and it’s clear she needed to get this story told, but it feels unresolved.
Murnick writes intelligently and sensitively about her topics, and her musings on the intricacies and complications of female friendship are sharply observed and analyzed, although I did occasionally question her motivations or their depth. But the book is riveting, I was glued to it and lingered on some exquisitely written passages, even if it’s uneven in the writing or narrative direction. It’s easy to see why she became so dedicated to this story, to finding the truth for her friend, for the memory of a person she once knew and for understanding the one she’s become herself.
The Hot One: A Memoir of Friendship, Sex, and Murder
by Carolyn Murnick
published August 1, 2017 by Simon & Schuster
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.
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