The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid is the epic life story of Hollywood’s most iconic film actress. At 79, the reclusive Evelyn Hugo is ready to do an interview about the upcoming auction of her most famous designer dresses. She hasn’t sat down with a reporter in decades. So, why now?
Monique Grant is flabbergasted when she learns Ms. Hugo has requested her for the job. Monique is an unknown reporter at Vivant magazine. Why would the infamous star pick her? Regardless, Monique is determined to use this prospect to jumpstart her career. When Evelyn reveals she has ulterior motives, Monique is even more perplexed. Evelyn isn’t interested in a magazine article. She wants Monique to write her authorized biography. Monique can’t help but think, “Why me?”
Over the course of two weeks, Monique makes her way to Evelyn’s luxurious penthouse each morning to listen to the actress bare her soul. Everyone wants to know about those seven husbands. Who was her true love? Was it the actor who dominated Hollywood during its golden age? Was it the producer she had her only child with? Or perhaps it was the avant garde, French director responsible for reviving her career.
Evelyn promises Monique she will answer all these questions and more. She wants to come clean and set the record straight. She wants to talk about Celia St. James. She spent her entire life manufacturing an Evelyn Hugo for public consumption. She became rich, famous, powerful, larger than life – an image that both served her and kept her from living authentically.
The truth about her life is hidden behind secrets and lies, sorrows and great happiness. So yes, Evelyn is going to tell Monique everything. She’s even going to tell Monique why she chose her to write her memoir. Their lives have intersected in a tragic and irrevocable way, and the circumstances will change everything Monique thought to be true about her own life.
From the outset, Evelyn is larger than life. She can still command a room at the age of 79. Everything she wants from Monique she gets; not surprising since she’s learned the world doesn’t give you things, you take things. She’s adamant her biography should reflect exactly who she is. She wants people to understand the Evelyn they think they know is a concoction of intricate details of a fake story. Her goal is for the world to see exactly who she is. She’s been tacky and manipulative, and she’d do it all again because that conduct helped her build a family more precious to her than all the money in the world or all the power she could accumulate. At the heart of it is her great love, Celia St. James. While Evelyn claims she’s not a nice person, she does have regrets. First and foremost, she laments it took her so long to give Celia what she deserved. She spent half her life loving Celia and the other half keeping that knowledge from the public. She wanted to protect Celia from a world that would look at her as an outcast, but she did it at the expense of the sanctity of their relationship. To paraphrase Evelyn, “The cruelest thing you can do to someone you love, is give them just enough good to make them stick through a hell of a lot of bad.” Despite all this, I was completely taken with Evelyn. Her honesty is captivating, and I was under her spell, waiting to see if she could redeem herself in the end.
Monique is the contemporary voice in the story. She’s not as much interested in looking back as she is in looking forward. She reluctantly accepts the job with Evelyn as a means to an end. She has no desire to be a biographer, but she’s smart enough to know this opportunity will open doors for her. While she’s committed to staying objective when it comes to Evelyn, she realizes the star has charisma for days. Monique can’t help but get wrapped up in Evelyn’s narrative, and she handles her job and soon-to-be ex-husband by using a, “What would Evelyn Hugo do?” mentality. Evelyn keeps dropping words of warning – Monique may hate her by the time she’s done telling her about her life. This stays at the back of Monique’s mind, but still, she’s committed to telling Evelyn’s story. There’s an air of mystery to the book as Monique and the reader wait for the other shoe to drop. Boy, it’s one hell of a doozy.
Celia St. James
From the moment Celia approaches Evelyn it’s apparent she’s entranced by her. They’re both young women, but Celia’s innocence and wide-eyed wonder contrasts with Evelyn’s worldliness. Celia is attracted to Evelyn’s boldness and her willingness to be calculating. Celia’s naivete is part of what makes her such a sympathetic character. Somehow, she thinks she an Evelyn can be open about their relationship. At times she hates Evelyn because of the things she’s willing to do so they can be together without suspicion, but she’s silently complicit. She knows Evelyn will do the dirty work so she can continue to be America’s sweetheart. Celia has her breaking points. She leaves Evelyn twice because she’s tired of only having half of Evelyn while the public has the other half. When she’s hurting, she makes sure Evelyn is hurting just as much. I cried for both of them. I enjoyed watching Celia come to terms with Evelyn’s sexuality. Initially she felt Evelyn was with her when it was convenient, and with men when it wasn’t. It took her a while to understand Evelyn could love both men and women. Once she accepted that, she was able to love Evelyn unconditionally.
Each of Evelyn’s husbands is unique and well fleshed out. I had my favorite, but I’m not about to give that away because I bet he’ll be yours, too. From her experience as a hyper-sexualized teenager, she learned sex could be transactional. The desire men felt for her could help her achieve her goals. Each one of her marriages was a bargain of sorts. They got her what she needed at that specific time whether it was power, prestige, or the safety to be with Celia. Conversely, each of her husbands received something in kind by marrying Evelyn. The marriages were beneficial in many of the identical ways for them, but they weren’t called whores for playing the same game as Evelyn.
The Writing Style
The writing is absolutely stunning. The book is told from both Evelyn and Monique’s points of view. Some may question if Evelyn can be a reliable narrator. It’s clear while listening to Evelyn recount the details of her life she’s completely without artifice. She’s at peace with her life. Jenkins Reid’s dialogue is so precise it’s clear Evelyn wants to be completely candid about her life – the good and the bad.
Jenkins Reid creates an authentic world spanning seven decades. I adore celebrity romances, so I was completely drawn into this universe. She nails every aspect of film history and makes the reader feel like they are getting exclusive, documented facts. I love how that reflects Hollywood’s goal – manufacturing reality.
The structure of the book adds an extra layer to the Hollywood glamour Jenkins Reid constructs. In between chapters there are articles from various tabloids of the time. They usually reflect the success of the lies Evelyn is weaving or, they spread the lies Evelyn has to deal with. The book is divided into sections named after each husband because each marriage Evelyn enters into is done with a specific goal in mind. Everything about the writing is picture perfect.
The narration was an extra bonus adding another layer to how the book resonated with me. I don’t have a lot of experience with audiobooks, and this is the first time I’ve listened to a book with three narrators. This made the narration feel more organic to me. There’s one narrator for Monique, one narrator for present day Evelyn, and one narrator who covers Evelyn’s past. I thought this was an interesting choice because it’s the present-day Evelyn who is telling her story, not a younger version of herself. The narration that covers the events of her life is very subtle. There’s almost no delineation when the male characters or other female characters are speaking. Despite this, there are never any points of confusion. This voice actress achieves this with impeccable timing and cadence. My only criticism is there’s a noticeable change in room ambiance when we are listening to the narrator who’s retelling Evelyn’s life. Each time the audiobook transitioned to this point of view, it took me out of the narrative, but I think this may be an issue just for me. Overall, this is one of the best audiobooks I’ve had the pleasure of listening to. If you’re a fan of mature characters, the narrator who voices the present day, 79-year-old Evelyn is absolutely swoon worthy.
My Favourite Parts
There are so many reasons to love this story aside from the plot and characters. For those of you who enjoy film history, this book is fun with a capital F. Evelyn will conjure up images of Elizabeth Taylor, Lana Turner, and Eva Gardner but she is completely unique. The deep dive into the classic Hollywood studio system and the rise of the grittier films of the 60’s and 70’s is spot on. I’ve already made a list of movies I think would be a great companion piece for this book.
Evelyn’s sexual orientation is a jumping off point to see how queerness was looked at in the 1950’s and how it changed over time. In the late 50’s the concept of bisexuality wasn’t on the radar. A person was either “normal” – heterosexual or a “degenerate” – homosexual. It took time for Evelyn to realize her own sexuality was something more than just a quirk. Even Celia’s understanding of Evelyn’s sexuality changed over time. In the early stages of their complex relationship, Celia saw Evelyn as straight when she hated her and a lesbian when she loved her. Evelyn recognized it was a falsehood to believe being with a woman only meant half of her was fulfilled, but it took Celia longer to accept that. By the time the Stonewall riots take place in the late 60’s, the characters at the heart of the story understand their queerness has political ramifications. I think this story resonates because biphobia is still problematic in the LGBTQ community.
For me, absolutely no cons. Nada. Niente. Rien.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the book has scenes of spousal abuse. It’s part of Evelyn’s story and one layer among many that informs who she is. Also, readers, as the title states, Evelyn Hugo has been married seven times, and she’s a bisexual woman. So…there’s sex between her and a few of her husbands. It’s euphemistic, brief, and with no male anatomy being mentioned. Please, don’t read this book and be shocked or mad at me because Evelyn’s sexual orientation is expressed.
Over the course of three weeks, I read this book twice and listened to the audiobook once. To say I love it is an understatement. It’s got everything I crave in a novel. There’s enough angst sprinkled throughout the story that my emotions bounced around like a Ping-Pong ball. The writing is so exquisite. I can’t think of a book in the recent past that captured my imagination so thoroughly. I love Evelyn, I was shocked by her, and I feel oodles of compassion for her and the tumultuous life she led. While reading, I too was under her spell so I identify with the fans who couldn’t get enough of her. I think I’m still enthralled by her byzantine personality. There may have been seven husbands, but there’s only one Evelyn Hugo. I know this book will be a yearly reread for me. One-click this gorgeous novel and let’s spend some time together having a nice long chat.
Excerpt from The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
“You can call me Evelyn,” she says.
“OK, Evelyn, what’s the next step here? What, precisely, are we going to do together?” I take the coffee cup and put it up to my lips, sipping just the littlest bit.
“We’re not doing a Vivant cover story,” she says.
“OK, that much I got,” I say, putting the cup down.
“We’re writing a book.”
Evelyn nods. “You and I,” she says. “I’ve read your work. I like the way you communicate clearly and succinctly. Your writing has a no-nonsense quality to it that I admire and that I think my book could use.”
“You’re asking me to ghostwrite your autobiography?” This is fantastic. This is absolutely, positively fantastic. This is a good reason to stay in New York. A great reason. Things like this don’t happen in San Francisco.
Evelyn shakes her head again. “I’m giving you my life story, Monique. I’m going to tell you the whole truth. And you are going to write a book about it.”
“And we’ll package it with your name on it and tell everyone you wrote it. That’s ghostwriting.” I pick up my cup again.
“My name won’t be on it. I’ll be dead.””
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Bits and Bobs
- ISBN number: 978-1501161933
- Publisher: Washington Square Press
- Audiobook Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
- Narrator: Alma Cuervo, Julia Whelan, and Robin Miles
- Taylor Jenkins Reid Online
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