The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
By: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication Date: June 13th, 2017
Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. But when she chooses unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant for the job, no one in the journalism community is more astounded than Monique herself. Why her? Why now?
Monique is not exactly on top of the world. Her husband, David, has left her, and her career has stagnated. Regardless of why Evelyn has chosen her to write her biography, Monique is determined to use this opportunity to jumpstart her career.
Summoned to Evelyn’s Upper East Side apartment, Monique listens as Evelyn unfurls her story: from making her way to Los Angeles in the 1950s to her decision to leave show business in the late 80s, and, of course, the seven husbands along the way. As Evelyn’s life unfolds through the decades—revealing a ruthless ambition, an unexpected friendship, and a great forbidden love—Monique begins to feel a very a real connection to the actress. But as Evelyn’s story catches up with the present, it becomes clear that her life intersects with Monique’s own in tragic and irreversible ways.
I know I’ve been posting a lot of books that are adult, rather than YA–sorry, all. In my defense, I’m scared to read any of the YA books on my TBR shelf (you think I’m joking, but Bright we Burn and Reaper at the Gates are staring at me as I type and promising to wrench my heart into tiny pieces and burn it). But anyways, Evelyn Hugo was recommended by Victoria Schwab as one of the best books she’d read so far this year, so of course I also had to read it. And it was, indeed, excellent.
The book revolves, as the title may indicate, around the former movie star Evelyn Hugo. She’s in her eighties, having outlived every single husband, and decides to hire up-and-coming journalist Monique to write her biography. But, as she goes through the impetus behind each of her seven marriages, what emerges is not a story about a Hollywood bombshell, but rather Evelyn’s enduring love of fellow actress Celia St. James.
Captivating, cynical and driven, Evelyn is the driving force behind the narrative. The inspiration for her seems to be somewhere between Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe Evelyn has Marilyn’s rough upbringing, dyed blonde hair and bombshell reputation. Some of the inspirations for Evelyn’s seven husbands and later life, though, seem to be influenced by Taylor (who also had seven husbands and did things like auction off all of her most famous dresses for charity). The narrative, however, is all Evelyn Hugo–in conversation with Monique, she shows that she’s pragmatic, ruthless and willing to do whatever she needs in order to get what she wants.
As interested as I was in the story about the glamour and seedy underbelly of Hollywood, the narrative changed sharply when Celia St. James was introduced, in a way I couldn’t get enough of. The contrast between them (small, sweet, Southern Celia and the brash, formidable Evelyn) was excellent. Their relationship was relatable, not perfect but very authentic. They definitely had their ups and downs (with good reason), but kept coming back to each other. And their relationship let the author cast an unflinching light on the issues of LGBTQ people at a time when homosexuality was illegal. I especially loved how Evelyn redirected her talent for drama, scandal and manipulating men into creating scandals as ‘cover’ for her relationship with Celia. I also loved how Evelyn and Celia made a small community of other Hollywood LGBTQ people, like Evelyn’s husband Harry, and how they covered for each other. One of the best lines was when Evelyn was talking about speculation about her and her fifth husband’s closeness to Celia and her husband, and how the media would have accepted if they were ‘swingers’ but not the fact that they were two happily monogamous queer couples. Another excellent one was when she and Celia were watching the Stonewall riots happen and realized that they couldn’t out themselves, but could give monetary support, and did.
I also loved how the book handled Evelyn’s bisexuality–#bivisibility. Celia was clearly the love of her life, but Evelyn also enjoyed relationships with men, wanted a child, and snapped at Monique for assuming that she was a lesbian. But at the same time, I also enjoyed how Evelyn had a markedly different relationship with men than with Celia. It seemed that although she was capable of sexual relationships with men, Celia was the love of her life and her only truly romantic partner. There was also an excellent discussion about how marriage doesn’t have to equate to love, and how there are different kinds of love–for instance, Evelyn loved her husband Harry in a way that was not at all sexual.
For all I loved that this book was a secret LGBTQ book, I also did love the unflinching look at Hollywood in the 50s-80s–the way that Evelyn was ‘found’ and rehabilitated by her studio was exactly the way that Marilyn was, for instance. The orchestrated marriage to Don Adler, who was abusive, mirrored Taylor’s marriage to Conrad Hilton Jr (as did her punishment for divorcing him). [CW/TW for abuse/sexual abuse]. Evelyn’s understanding that scandal sold was cynical, but continues to this day to be accurate. What made me laugh out loud was the point at which Evelyn’s reputation was such that she didn’t even have to manufacture scandals anymore–a whisper that she’d been seen with a much younger congressman and that was it.
That being said, in describing this book to my mother I apparently gave her the impression that it was ‘cute’, which it is decidedly not. Although there are parts to be liked, and parts of Evelyn that are likeable, she is a character that is not noble, not compassionate, and is shown deeply enshrouded in shades of grey. Her narrative begins when she realizes at 13 that she can exchange access to her body for things she wants (decidedly not cute, and also TW: assault/sexual abuse) and then promptly coaxes a man to marry her and take her to California. Evelyn as Monique meets her is a woman in her eighties–bitter, cynical, having outlived contemporaries, husbands, her lover and even her daughter. She reveals to Monique all of her darkness, all of the people who were victims of her decisions. But for all that there is something compelling about her story. Perhaps it’s the way that Evelyn reveals herself, unflinching, aware that she is not a good person but also with no regret for any action she took. Perhaps it’s simply this long look into someone who isn’t good or bad, but simply is. For whatever reason, this book is one that I wholeheartedly adored–and the kind of book that makes me wish I could make something half as wonderful.
Disclaimer: The synopsis and cover picture were pulled from the book’s Goodreads page. Neither belong to us.