Hollywood Hot Mess & Total Trainwreck
There seems to be a current trend in taking one long book and publishing it in two volumes. In the present instance, Hollywood Hot Mess by Evie Claire ends on a cliffhanger and Total Trainwreck picks up immediately after that, so both volumes are reviewed as one story here.
The blurb for Total Trainwreck describes it as “compulsively readable”, and for the beginning of this first instalment, that is definitely the case. You enter the head of the first-person narrator, a soon-to-be twenty-year-old woman, with everything written in the present tense, and find yourself on an emotional roller coaster. It’s gripping, it pulls you in … and after about a hundred pages you wonder where you’re going. And after two hundred pages you wonder about the company you keep. While I read Hollywood Hot Mess in one session in spite of my increasing irritation with the heroine, I put down Total Trainwreck after I’d got about a quarter of the way through because I couldn’t stand her any longer, and really had to force myself to pick it up again.
The story actually starts off very well. Carly Klein acted in a long-running TV show from ages one to sixteen and has been on a downward spiral of alcohol and cocaine for years. After getting out of rehab, she pays a first visit to her probation officer, where she has to pee in a cup in that woman’s sight. The scene is funny, Carly’s disgust at her fellow probationers provides an amusing angle on her own situation, and in the encounter with the probation officer there is something that might actually be the beginning of a human relationship of sorts. The woman never turns up again.
Instead, Carly starts picking up the shreds of her life. After an interview with a tabloid reporter – which she completely mismanages due to remarkable naïvété – she leaves for Europe to film an historical romance (think Games of Thrones minus the political manoeuvering and the violence) starring as a “teenage whore” (the phrase is thrown at the reader ad nauseam) to a king played by Devon Hayes, an incredibly famous and successful Hollywood actor, who is also the film’s producer. Carly resents him at first and is openly rude to him. To her surprise, he asks her to join him and some others to celebrate Thanksgiving on his private island, and she agrees. She is even more surprised when no-one else turns up. Devon explains he just wants them to get to know each other better, as her dislike has been marring their onscreen chemistry. They talk, they spend time at the beach, and they fall for each other in the course of two or three days. But any relationship is impossible, or at least has to be kept a strict secret, because news of it getting out would destroy both Carly’s and Devon’s careers.
Of course there are reasons for this. Both Devon and Carly have dark – truly dark – secrets in their pasts, which I won’t reveal here, because finding out about them was what kept me a tiny bit interested in reading the second volume
Why did I dislike the books so much? Mostly it’s Carly. Her voice may be compelling at first, but boy, did it grate after a while. Due to terrible events in her past, she is (plausibly) even more immature than her nineteen/twenty years. Imagine spending close to 600 pages inside the head of a narcissistic hormonal thirteen-year-old with an inflated ego, all the self-control of a starved shark, the survival instincts of a baby rabbit, and a strong predilection for making public scenes, and to weeping. A lot. Her speech is full of fuck and ass, and all women mentioned except a chosen few are whores, sluts and bitches. This is supposed to create a raw and authentic tone, and perhaps it does, but it grows old quickly.
I chose to review the books because I thought getting an insight into film-making might be interesting, but there is not actually very much about the movie industry in it. Mostly we just get Carly despising everyone around her, but the author never gives the actual work much space (except for providing an opportunity for sex scenes), and even Devon, who is supposed to be a committed worker, is only given very small scope for showing this – although he occasionally reads a script. Carly herself knows from the start that this movie with Devon is her last chance to salvage her acting career so that she can return to the top of Hollywood as is her due – based on what, I never found out. This sense of entitlement never leaves her. On set, in spite of fearing she might be fired, she acts the brat throughout and shows her deep-seated contempt of everyone – including the director – openly. Later, she happily brags to her herself that she can’t be fired because she is sleeping with the producer. Caring about her art, or the quality of her performance? Not a trace, unless (rarely) it’s a case of one-upmanship.
But what annoyed me most about Carly is that she remains exactly the same for over 400 pages, and changes very little over the 200 pages after that. Apart from falling for Devon and then giving her all to reel him in, her outlook remains the same from start to finish. She is the victim, everybody else wants to feed on her fame, and/or is below her notice. She hates paparazzi – with reason – but compulsively reads the gossip sites. She is particularly savage about other women, for example a fellow actress: “She’s a no-name European actress who’s happy to show her titties to anyone who’ll look. That’s why she got the part.” (This is ironic, because Carly’s own contract specifically stipulates she bare her breasts. It may be intentional. I wish.) An American actress is “obviously the cheesy fame-whore type”, which Carly knows from just looking at her photograph. This attitude of Carly’s in never questioned throughout the novel, instead she’s proved right. Misogyny in novels aimed at women readers always irritates me.
Finally Carly – and with her, Evie Claire, – lost me for good at two passages in Hollywood Hot Mess. First, in a fit of anger in an airport bathroom Carly rips a metal trashcan off the wall and throws it across the room at women and children, commenting contemptuously on “their stupid, petrified, wide-eyed deer-in-the-headlights looks. What could they possibly know about what has just happened to me [another nasty online article about herself]? What I’ve lost?”. In the other instance, when again she is about to explode, this time in her trailer, the “assistants recognize the anger building in me and scurry to the corners like trained cockroaches”. That’s what the rest of humanity are for this particular narrator: cockroaches. Or, in Total Trainwreck, “peons” (unfree labourers). Almost all the secondary characters in these novels are not dignified with a name. This attitude towards the rest of humankind might be forgivable in a satiric text, or if Carly was the villain, or there was even a hint of recognition that this is wrong. There is none. From a romance heroine, however, I expect some basic decency.
There is one small element I liked about the development of Carly’s character and that is the way that recovery from addiction is dealt with in Hollywood Hot Mess (it is dropped in Total Trainwreck). Carly constantly needs to withstand the temptation of booze and coke, and silently repeats to herself mantras obviously learnt in rehab to pull herself together. That was touching, and sounded true.
Devon is not much of a solace either. He comes with all the attributes expected from the generic romance hero: the body of Adonis, the sexual stamina of Hercules, and the sensitivity and generosity attributed to Ryan Gosling in dozens of magazine articles. Add to this Richard Gere’s hair, and you’ve got Devon. Oh, and he’s got this super-long penis. His one not-cookie-cutter trait is his strong determination to protect his reputation, and with it his career, at all cost. That might have been interesting, had it been explored at any depth. Once he falls for Carly he can’t resist her, returns to her again and again in spite of everything, and is prepared to do just about anything as long as his public image remains intact. As a result, he comes across as wimpy rather than romantic. I also wish the author had made up her mind about what sort of films Devon stars in. In Hollywood Hot Mess, he plays fathers and senators. In Total Trainwreck, it’s “shoot-’em-up action flicks”. Go figure.
The two novels are partly set abroad, in a Northern European country referred to by several characters as “Siberia” (which is in fact the Asian part of Russia – information that two seconds at Wikipedia might have divulged to the author). It is dark, there are lots of stars to be seen, there is no snow at all during December and January, and it has third world standards. It’s painful to read the result of so very little research when the information is so very readily available.
The sex scenes, of which there are plenty, are actually very well written, intense and emotional without getting tacky or overly sentimental. I might have enjoyed them far more had they taken place between two characters I actually cared about. There is one element in Hollywood Hot Mess that crosses in the line into the Burning category, so consider yourself warned, but this does not justify a change of sensuality rating.
In Total Trainwreck, there are some moral evaluations and decisions that leave a decidedly bad taste. I don’t mean unconventional or illegal acts; in the right context these may work just fine, but here Carly’s self-justification is hair-raising, as it stems from feelings of superiority or plain pleasure in kicking others. A mistake in past that was supposed to have almost ruined the hero is suddenly white-washed completely because someone else also acted extremely badly in the same context. Oh, and the heroine gives a puppy to a small child as a surprise present to get revenge on that child’s mother. That’s our girl.
And when I thought I had finally reached the end of the actual story, I was presented with forty pages of unadulterated wish-fulfilment candy which were so sugary sweet as to be sickening.
The sad thing is that Evie Claire can write. This duology might have worked as a savage satire on Hollywood starlets, or as a psychological case study of a very messed-up individual, or, given a hero with a backbone and a heroine with an ounce of character and leaving out all the high drama, a very hot erotic romance. Unfortunately, it is none of those things. Hollywood Hot Mess and Total Trainwreck ended up being plain painful to read, and cannot be recommended. That’s 600 pages and several hours of my life I won’t get back.