Title: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (2017)
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Read: 3rd – 10th September 2018
Genre: historical fiction
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
“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.”
(Synopsis from author’s website)
Even though I’ve been told many times that The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is a top-class read, I wasn’t sure if it was really the read for me. As someone who mostly reads young-adult fantasy as of late, to say I haven’t read much historical fiction this year would be an understatement, and this made me worry about how much I’d enjoy this story. I was wrong, I was so wrong, it wasn’t a disappointment at all. Through the character of Evelyn Hugo we get an insight into the allegedly scandalous lives and careers of her and her friends in the movie industry in 1950s Hollywood. An outsider determined to break into the industry, a tale as old as time, Evelyn Hugo doesn’t take no for an answer and shrewdly sheds her identity as Evelyn Elena Herrera (daughter of Cuban immigrants in New York City) and crafts herself into what (and who) she needs to be in order to make it in Hollywood – and she never apologises for this, candidly opening up to reporter Monique Grant who hopes that this interview will rejuvenate her own flagging career as a journalist. From this position of distance and hindsight, Evelyn is able to tell her life story (and indeed at times I forgot I was reading a fiction book and it felt like a realistic memoir) and highlight the problems and toxicity in a lot of situations she encounter in her life, both professional and personal. However, readers are not forced to look at them in a certain way, instead Evelyn tells her story to Monique and we are left to make our own conclusions about what she reveals, and how it has affected her.
“I’m under absolutely no obligation to make sense to you.”
What struck me most about this novel was that the relatively simple premise – reclusive Hollywood icon recruits journalist to listen to her tell-it-all of her scandalous marriages of years gone by – gave way to a rich and complex story of the eponymous woman’s life, a life which was once far from glamorous and shiny like the jewels and dresses she later wore as a beloved actress. Although Hugo’s upbringing was tough and gritty, I liked the fact that out of this came the ballsy and ambitious woman that she became. But with the ambition also comes moments when Evelyn is not exactly the good person in the equation but what I respected most about this book was the fact that Taylor Jenkins Reid allowed her eponymous protagonist to be absolutely horrid at times, and still somehow was skilled enough to make a reader care deeply for Evelyn and want to see her come out on top.
“People think that intimacy is about sex. But intimacy is about truth. When you realize you can tell someone your truth, when you can show yourself to them, when you stand in front of them bare and their response is ‘you’re safe with me’- that’s intimacy.”
The structure of the book is very clever – we chart Evelyn’s life through the husbands she married. Famously she has, as the book’s title states, been married seven times, and each husband is pre-judged by the title which the narrative dubs his section of the book, and of Evelyn’s life. For example, we have her first husband, ‘Poor Ernie Diaz’ who Evelyn sees as her chance to leave behind Hell’s Kitchen, or her famous co-star ‘Goddamn Don Adler’ who felt so real I thought I could practically hear him turning on the movie-star charm, and my own personal (heart-breaking) favourite husband, the ‘Brilliant, kindhearted, tortured Harry Cameron’, her producer with whom she also shared a daughter. Through her husbands and relationships, we gain an extremely intimate knowledge of Evelyn, and also the immense pressure put upon her as a young actress by her industry and society at large to look a certain way, date certain people, and conform to certain expectations. It’s safe to say that Evelyn struggles with this throughout her career, something which she allows reporter Monique to learn over several ‘tell all’ sessions. Through this you really see the stages of Evelyn’s life and career as she experiences the highs and the lows of Hollywood, and how this affects her relationships with those around her.
“Don’t ignore half of me so you can fit me into a box. Don’t do that.”
In conclusion, I feel I cannot say anything more detailed for fear of ruining the book, but suffice it to say that The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is a story that starts simply and frivolously enough but quickly becomes engrossing and emotional as you begin to understand the woman at its core and the truths of her life, behind the headlines that the tabloids are so keen to report on this Hollywood glamour icon. Although the story is set in the present day, and largely recounts Evelyn’s life between the 1960s and 1980s, the questions raised by the trials and tribulations in her personal but more importantly her professional life are just as (if not more) timely in the entertainment industry today. And one thing is for sure: Evelyn Hugo isn’t always a likeable character, but she’s sure as hell the one that you’ll always hope comes out on top in the end.
“Never let anyone make you feel ordinary.”