The author of Sex and the City returns with a spoof of the lifestyle she’s built. Killing Monica is about best selling author Pandy Wallis who would like to write a serious historical novel inspired by her ancestor Lady Wallis, a great feminist. Unfortunately, she’s built her career on a character called Monica, who has spawned a line of novels, movies and merchandise, and her agent, publisher, friends and fans all couldn’t care less about Lady Wallis and instead demand more Monica. Worse, her ex-husband is after her money, and she’ll need to write another Monica novel to pay him off.
Bushnell explores a question that likely haunts many writers — at what point does the creator lose control over their work? As this novel shows and Bushnell can probably attest to herself, there are times when it’s the creation that takes over, and the writer becomes a mere cog in its machine.
A friend to whom I lent this book described it as “Sex and the City turns Harold Robbins,” and I couldn’t have said it better. Through flashbacks, we meet Pandy as a young woman, attempting to break into Hollywood life — there’s a great line about partying with “displaced New Yorkers,” including “a couple of disgruntled literary writers who were determined to show New York, mostly by drinking too much, that they didn’t give a shit about it.” (page 53) I enjoyed reading about her friendship with SondraBeth Schnowzer, who plays Monica onscreen. There’s a total party girl vibe but there are also hints of the jealousy and selfishness that will soon cause friction between them. As a boyfriend points out, Monica is all who SondraBeth is at this point in her career, yet SondraBeth can never truly be her, because the real Monica — Pandy — is still around. Bushnell steers clear of the obvious Single White Female plot directions, which is a bit of a shame, because the novel could have gone much darker, and also much more interesting, with this material.
We see Pandy’s rise in Hollywood, coupled with the diminishing of her personal life, where her marriage becomes a trap and her friendships become more shallow. A fire at her ancestral home gives Pandy a chance at a new life, yet comes too late in the plot to feel much more than a frantic denouement. Bushnell squeezes as much dialogue about women empowerment as she can in the last few chapters, where Pandy — and to an extent ShondaBeth — fight to reclaim their identities beyond the patriarchal Hollywood machine, and in a way, it’s a fitting third act in a story about both women essentially having their actions controlled by powerful men. But it also feels slapdash, and the execution — while never intended to be realistic — still feels too much a strain on credulity to make its impact.
The third act does provide a response to the question Bushnell raises, about the author’s control over their work, and it was really well done. In some of the book’s most powerful moments, we see how people respond to Pandy after the fire, and it’s a haunting, almost terrifying look at the cult of celebrity, and how much the real person actually matters.
A final note, and without giving anything away, I must say that I absolutely hate how Bushnell treats the big reveal about Pandy’s sister Hellenor. The impetus behind Monica’s creation, who later begged to have Monica killed, Hellenor is away in Amsterdam for most of the book. We aren’t told why she left, and while we receive hints that Pandy is no longer in contact with her, we don’t know why until the last few pages. Bushnell keeps it under wraps until the very end for effect, and the actual reveal plays no role beyond, possibly, surprise expected on the part of the reader. Given the general suppression of these kinds of stories, and the lack of representation of this community, I hate that this reveal was played as a cheap trick. It feels disrespectful, and equally important, it feels like a wasted opportunity, considering that Hellenor’s story could have tied in thematically with other points in the plot.
Otherwise, it’s an entertaining story, and if it turns into a TV show, I’ll have the utmost sympathy for any actress who has to wear the gorgeous, but torturous, Monica shoes.
Thanks to Hachette Book Group for an advanced reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.