When Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was first released, I pushed it aside pretty easily. I had never read any of Reid’s books, and I wasn’t particularly interested in reading a scandalous story about a fictional celeb. I’m not even very interested in real celebrities. But every review I’ve seen for this book has been glowing, and I was intrigued. So I picked it up.
About the book: Evelyn Hugo was a nobody in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York, with a dead mother and an abusive father and a body that men blamed her for. She needed to get out, and she did it by latching on to her mother’s dream of becoming an actress. She married a poor man who could offer her nothing more than a ride to Hollywood, and from there her legacy began. Evelyn clawed her way up the film fame ladder through the 1960’s-80s, facing prejudices against her race, her gender, and her sexual preferences. By 2015, she’s ready to finally share her story with the world: to expose the truth of her personality and her husbands, without the lies generated by the film industry and tabloids. But the person she chooses to tell her story, a small-time magazine writer named Monique, realizes she may have an unexpected and disturbing connection to superstar Evelyn Hugo.
“You’re an idealist and a romantic, and you have a beautiful soul. And I wish the world was ready to be the way you see it. I wish that the rest of the people on earth with us were capable of living up to your expectations. But they aren’t. The world is ugly, and no one wants to give anyone the benefit of the doubt about anything.”
Let me lead off by admitting that I completely understand the hype surrounding this book. Evelyn Hugo is fascinating in her extraordinariness, but despite her growing wealth and fame, she never loses the humanity that attracts readers to her unfortunate life in her story’s opening. She’s had a rough life, and no matter how high she climbs, the reader can always see and relate to her struggles. She deals with prejudice in the industry, opinionated masses, domestic abuse, forbidden love, powerful enemies, and so much more. She doesn’t see herself as a good person, but she doesn’t regret the choices she’s made. I’ve never read a celeb story (real or fabricated) this important. It’s timely in its advocacy for equality, and it’s entertaining from cover to cover.
“But that’s a luxury. You can do that whey you’re rich and famous. You can decide that wealth and renown are worthless when you have them. Back then, I still thought I had all the time I needed to do everything I wanted. That if I just played my cards right, I could have it all.”
Unfortunately, through no fault of the text itself, the fact that The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is labeled as LGBTQ+ does give some of the plot away. I was pretty clear on which of Evelyn’s loves would drive this story, despite the seven husbands.
Perhaps more to the fault of the text, I also guessed Monique’s connection to Evelyn’s story. Evelyn specifically requests Monique for her interview in the first pages of the book, then immediately throws that interview out the window to give Monique a different kind of exclusive narrative. That, combined with some overt foreshadowing, also made a personal connection between Evelyn and Monique pretty blatant; I spent the story looking for Monique’s tie-in, which eliminated the final surprise and some of the tension for me. I read the entire book with a pretty good idea of its ending, which made this a book about the journey.
Though the journey is great, it also felt a lot like a checklist of social issues for Evelyn to overcome. Novels that challenge current social issues are so important, but I was a little off-put by the way it seemed at times like Reid was simply trying to collect them all in Evelyn’s career. Certainly I understand that one person can face multiple social challenges in their lifetime, but the way they piled up one after the next prevented me from overlooking Evelyn’s fictionality while reading this story.
But even if Evelyn remained no more than a character on a page for me, I’m so grateful that she exists in today’s world of literature. We need minority characters who carve a place for themselves in careers that have excluded them for too long. We need to remember how women have been overlooked and manipulated and victimized by the patriarchy. We need to see how people have been hurt by fast judgments against non-hetero romantic relationships. These are the novels that open minds and encourage change. And the fact that Evelyn Hugo can do all this even with a sort of anti-heroine perspective is fascinating and wonderful– so many of us see our failures more prominently than our successes, and can take a lesson from someone undeniably imperfect so much more easily than an unattainable ideal. Evelyn wields a lot of power, even if she’s not real.
“Never let anyone make you feel ordinary.”
One last thought: on structure. I love how easily The Seven Husbands switches between Monique’s present and Evelyn’s past. Their sections are not labelled, but I was never confused about which character I was following or which timeline they were narrating, which is an incredible win for Reid’s writing.
The news articles sprinkled throughout the book did succeed in pulling me into Evelyn’s world, and I liked the short breaks from the novel proper. But many of the news articles are superfluous, regurgitating information. I wish more had been done with them. One article was slanderous and less expected, but Evelyn knew just what to do to save her name. Evelyn always knows what the media will say about her, and how to spin her life into a scandal that’ll boost her fame; I was somewhat disappointed that she never guessed wrong– Evelyn says “this is what they’ll say about me,” and then an article follows saying exactly that. This formula grew boring after a while, though the articles do add to the atmosphere of Evelyn’s renown.
“I pretend that I am not furious and confused and heartbroken and torn up and disappointed and shocked and uncomfortable. I pretend that I am simply captivated by Evelyn Hugo. Because, despite everything, I still am.”
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a tough book to rate. I did waver for several days between 4 and 5 stars because I did particularly enjoy reading this book and I do think it’s spreading some important messages in an interesting way. But in the end I just didn’t love it quite as much as I usually love a 5 star book, perhaps because I was able to predict certain aspects of it. I will be keeping my eye out for Reid’s future works, though. I’ll be interested to see where she goes from here.
Have you read any inspiring books dealing with social issues lately?
The Literary Elephant