“But it hasn’t gotten me very far, that type of kindness. The world respects people who think they should be running it.”
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid seems to have taken the world by storm, much like the titular actress did in her fictional world. I picked this read up as part of my work book club and can totally see why it is such a success. I recently read Daisy Jones and the Six, Reid’s documentary style novel about a fictional band, and can definitely see elements that I loved in that novel at work here, which I why I think I enjoyed it so much. I gave this read five stars, and I have to say it took me completely by surprise. But I’m getting ahead of myself here – something that always happens when I try to write a review for a book I thoroughly enjoyed reading.
Aging and reclusive Hollywood movie icon Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. 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—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.
For me, major success of this novel has to come from Evelyn herself. In her we have a protagonist who at times seems to be her own antagonist. She is utterly fierce, unbelievably strong, and undeniably tenacious. I loved that her confidence meant that she said what ‘shouldn’t’ be said, presenting the world as it truly was, never mind how horrible and cruel that was or the social taboos that people like to cower behind. Evelyn is under no misconceptions about the world, and sees it for how truly exploitative it is. But rather than weep and crumble in the presence of this, she is determined to get everything out of this world that she can. Knowing that the world will just see her as ‘a piece of ass’, Evelyn manipulates her appearance, the media’s fascination with her, and even the men who want to own her, simply to progress her career and protect those she loves. In many ways this is admirable, which causes you to hestitate when you realise how undeniably cruel and manipulative she can be. But Evelyn sees the world as a place where everything is a facade … so why not continue that facade to survive?
“Oh, I know the whole world prefers a woman who doesn’t know her power, but I’m sick of all that.”
Relationships play a pivotal role in this novel, romantic and otherwise. I fell in love with the connections Evelyn made with those around her, and cried my eyes out in her moments of pure vulnerability. For all her ferocity, Evelyn seems to be a character who is simply longing for some place to belong, and some people to belong with. It’s easy to get sucked into the glamour and scandal that accompanies her, but the moments of heartbreaking honesty surrounding her relationships with others truly presents Evelyn as the multi-layered and complex character that has suddenly taken the bookish world by storm.
I also loved that novel covered such a wide range of hard hitting topics. I will put some trigger warnings here for abuse (emotional and physical), death, and alcoholism, just so you are aware if these affect you. I will say, however, that these events are presenting in a way where the reader is left to face the reality of the situation rather than the semantics of them. Evelyn seems to have removed the emotions from such events, for example her early sexualisation in her teens, viewing them in a rational and calculating way which I found quite unsettling. Whilst I didn’t quite agree with her justifications in the face of such horrible events, her determination somehow makes some sort of success out of them, despite the brutality presented. I thought the discussions surrounding social stigma, inquality, and prejudice was particularly interesting and insightful.
You cannot talk about this book without discussing representation. What I found particularly interesting were the layers of representation within this novel. Before reading it, I knew that Evelyn was a bisexual woman and I knew there would be LGBTQ+ representation in the novel, however when reading it I was impressed by the representation of race within the novel, especially towards how it is viewed through a largely white society. Most of the women in the ‘present’ are strong and not of white ethicity, which I found incredibly important. However, what I find interesting is the irony that the representation is so prevalent in this novel, but completely separate to the perception of the celebrity ‘Evelyn Hugo’ in the novel’s media and public consciousness. We, as readers, know Evelyn as this strong queer woman, however she spends the majority of her life crushing any aspect of her that could be ‘different’. She even dyes her hair blonde to not be erronously seen as ‘mexican’, and refuses to speak anything other than English. The only ‘controversial’ aspect of herself that she will allow to exist is her scandalous and sexualised identity, which is as fake as her hair in truth. The autobiography itself is only to be written because Evelyn now views it as ‘safe’ to be seen as anything different, and is only to be published once she has died, and is therefore ‘free’ from being seen in this way, at least knowingly. I thought this was really interesting because I think it defintely makes us think about what the media prioritises and allows, which parts of us it wants to consume and which it wants to reject. When I read this novel, especially Evelyn’s manipulation and persecuation from the media, I couldn’t help but think about how it applies to our own media, and the tragedies that have come from this savagery.
For most of this review I have spoken about Evelyn and those connected to her. For me, she is the reason I found this novel so enjoyable. The second lead, Monique, I found quite clunky and irritating, longing simply to hear from Evelyn instead. I understand why she was there, and also why she was presented in this way, but my-oh-my I did not enjoy her. I also found the big reveal about her character and why she was there quite underwhelming, but I think that’s because it was very Daisy Jones and the Six-y but not as impactful.
Overall, I absolutely adored this read. It is clear to see the Reid has found her niche with this style of writing and I can’t wait to see what she delivers next. A wonderful five star rating from me!