Review: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

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.

thesevenhusbandsofevelynhugoAbout 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?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

19 thoughts on “Review: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo”

    1. Thank you! I didn’t know much about it when I started seeing it around either, so I’m glad I could help clarify. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did if you pick it up!

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  1. I did love this book a lot but I completely understand all of your criticisms. I think it helped that I read it when I was in desperate need of escapism, so it helped me overlook some of its flaws more than I ordinarily would. I also guessed the great love of Evelyn’s life very early on, but I’m actually super impressed you managed to figure out Evelyn’s connection to Monique – that totally surprised me!

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    1. I have to admit, I don’t think I would’ve figured out Monique’s connection if I hadn’t been trying so hard. I’m picky about foreshadowing, and the hints that Monique was going to hate Evelyn at the end of her story felt cheap to me, so I took that as a challenge to figure out the mystery beforehand. The age difference between the women and the hints that Monique’s regard for Evelyn would be overturned helped me narrow it down to the scenes of Evelyn’s most questionable behavior. I can see that figuring out that connection is probably not an issue most readers will have, which is maybe why Reid felt confident enough to foreshadow its results in such an unnecessary way.

      But even flawed, The Seven Husbands went straight onto my potential-favorites list for the year. There’s a lot to love about it!

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      1. All I’d been able to guess was that it had something to do with Monique’s [family member] but honestly I couldn’t figure out the specifics to save my life. But once it was revealed it was such an ‘OH, DUH’ moment – I’d even thought at the time that the name of that man in Evelyn’s story was conspicuously absent when she gave names for EVERYONE ELSE, so you’d think I’d have put two and two together, but nope. Not my proudest moment as I usually do pride myself on my twist-guessing abilities in genre fiction.

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      2. I definitely know those moments! In this case I think it’s a sort of sleight-of-hand move: that scene is so devastating already, and in the aftermath we’re looking at that new actor who uses the crisis as a career boost. It’s almost that you have to be looking for what’s NOT there instead of what is. I thought it was pretty well done, actually, except for the foreshadowing. Which, in my opinion, works well to set a tone, but should not set the reader up for the plot twist that everything is hinged on.

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      3. Definitely agreed!! When you refer to the foreshadowing, are you talking about those moments where Monique is like ‘I’m going to hate Evelyn in a week,’ or was there subtler foreshadowing that I missed?

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      4. Yes, I mean the ‘I’m going to hate Evelyn’ moments. Maybe I’m crazy and they weren’t as obtrusive as I remember them, but they just seemed to me like flashy ‘look where the plot is going!’ neon signs that the story didn’t need. Evelyn’s specific request for Monique to tell her story outside of the magazine is enough to let the reader know there’s a personal connection, and that Monique hasn’t known anything about it. And Evelyn’s reminders that she’s not necessarily a good person, and that she won’t tell Monique why she picked her specifically until after everything else, is enough of a hint that the connection is a negative one. The specific mention of her future hatred just seemed over the top. Those were what kept me searching for the specific awful connection, instead of just happening upon it more naturally. But I guess that’s a pretty stylistic criticism; I might just be getting too picky with my reading lately!

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      5. Got it! No, I know what you mean. It worked for me because despite all that I STILL wasn’t able to guess the connection. But since you were able to, I imagine it would have been quite annoying. Like, if Evelyn had straight up told the reader about it on page 5 and then Monique had kept vaguely referencing it with these neon signs saying ‘Evelyn did something to personally hurt me’ when we already know what that thing is, that would have been beyond irritating. I imagine it’s one of those cases where guessing the twist lessened the impact of the book overall.

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      6. Yes, I think that was the problem for me. You mentioned reading this book for the escapism, and I think if I had approached it that way instead of looking closely for criticisms I wouldn’t have had any issues with it. I read this right after Freshwater, which is one of the few books that seemed basically perfect in its execution, so coming off of that I think I was just more likely to find fault.

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      7. Oh man, that’s a particularly difficult one to follow! Plus it’s so literary and Evelyn Hugo is so commercial, that can be a jarring tonal shift for sure.

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      8. Yes! Usually I like picking up something completely different than what I’ve just read, because it helps immerse me in the world of the new book. It also makes for some interesting contrasts and comparisons at times. But I think I misjudged how this particular pairing would fit (or not)!

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