There are some books that you just know, after only a few pages, are going to be magical. For me, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was one of these books. Like any bookworm, I read a lot of novels that I describe as being great, enjoyable, well-written, or exciting. The word ‘love’, however, I reserve only for a select few.
I loved this book.
Who, What, Where?
In 2017 NYC, journalist Monique Grant is surprised to learn that she has been specifically requested by legendary actress, Evelyn Hugo, to conduct the star’s first interview in several years. Monique just hopes to get a few personal details beyond the upcoming charity auction. Instead, she’s shocked to find that Evelyn has called her there to begin work on a tell-all biography in which she plans to finally put everything on the table – her rise to fame, efforts to stay in the limelight, all seven husbands, and the true love of her life.
Rich & Real Characters
Evelyn Hugo is a very people-centric story and its success is due in large part to Reid’s fabulously written characters. As you’d expect, Evelyn, herself, is the heart of this novel. In creating Evelyn and her story, Reid has incorporated characteristics of many famous starlets – Marilyn Monroe’s sex symbol status, Elizabeth Taylor’s marriages and friendship with Monty Clift, Rita Hayworth’s immigrant roots, and Ava Gardiner’s desire to write a tell-all biography. She is a fantastic representation of women in the film industry – the struggles they experience to stay relevant and be taken seriously. Yet, at the same time, Evelyn is so clearly her own person.
“I’m cynical and I’m bossy, and most people would consider me vaguely immoral.”
Evelyn is vain, not particularly kind, and often selfish in her relentless pursuit of fame and acclaim, but at the same time she’s a very complex, strong and, dare I say it, feminist character. She knows what she wants in life and despite numerous setbacks, refuses to let others stop her from achieving it. You can’t help but love her and watching Evelyn evolve over the course of the book is one of its most compelling components.
While Monique may start off TSHOEH, once the ball gets rolling, she mostly fades into the background and doesn’t return as a strong presence until the climax. Despite this, Reid still manages to make her relatable and give her a good degree of depth, making the most of her limited page time.
Aside from our two leads, Evelyn’s world is filled with an array of interesting and diverse characters. With seven husbands, there was always the risk of these men blending together but each manages to feel distinct from one another, particularly with regards to the roles they play in Evelyn’s life and the effect they have on her character.
Sexual Diversity & Representation
TSHOEH features not one, not two, but three non-heterosexual major characters, as well as several others in smaller roles. The love and care given to these individuals is evident from start to finish and it’s truly wonderful to see queer individuals as dramatic and romantic leads. Evelyn, herself, is bisexual. Living in the public eye as she does, and during the decades she has, this plays a huge part in the trajectory of her story. Despite the time difference, many of the issues Evelyn experiences connected to her sexuality are still faced by bisexuals in today’s world – how she can possibly be attracted to both genders, the jealousy and insecurity of romantic partners regarding her bisexuality, and of course, the fear of being completely misunderstood.
“Don’t ignore half of me so you can fit me into a box. Don’t do that.”
Evelyn’s romantic relationship with her great love, actress Celia St James, is another wonderful addition to the novel. This relationship is far from easy but it’s also sweet, bitter, intimate, and beautifully crafted. Their story is a rollercoaster of emotion and it’s simply impossible to look away. Yet, the fact that so many of their troubles stem from a need to hide who they are, and their love for one another, is what makes it truly heartbreaking.
“I love you more than anything else in the entire world.”
“It’s not wrong,” Celia said. “It shouldn’t be wrong, to love you. How can it be wrong?”
“It’s not wrong, sweetheart. It’s not,” I said. “They’re wrong.”
Old Hollywood Glamour
“You should know this about the rich: they always want to get richer. It is never boring, getting your hands on more money.”
Despite the rampant sexism, racism, homophobia and a whole host of other issues, there’s always been something glamorous about old-school Hollywood. The beauty, romance, youth, freedom – we can’t help being dazzled by it, but at the same time, we’re very aware of Tinseltown’s darker, seedier and more twisted undertones. TSHOEH embraces this contrast completely and Reid handles it wonderfully. The decision to start Evelyn’s story in the 1940s and progress right through to the 80s suited the themes and natural progression of the book perfectly, and I was hooked from the start right til the very end.
Successful Structure & Style
POV: The novel is technically written from Monique’s perspective, however, the majority of it consists of what Evelyn is verbally describing, largely uninterrupted, to Monique about her life. Except for the brief segments in which Monique voices a question or the two women stop for the day (and we spend some time in Monique’s head), the story feels like Evelyn’s POV. It makes sense from a narrative standpoint but also ensures an intimate connection with both women.
Parts: Evelyn’s story is broken up into seven parts, each named after one of her many husbands. It’s a choice that works very well as each man represents the start and end of a particular stage in Evelyn’s life. The descriptors for each husband in the section titles also act as a fun teaser for what’s to come next.
Style: Along with the traditional narrative, Reid also incorporates numerous “news articles” in between chapters to showcase public perceptions of Evelyn and her loved ones, and to mark big moments in her life. These were great inclusions as they served to enhance elements of the story but also really drove home one of the ideas of the novel which is that what the public sees of people in the limelight is rarely ever the true or full picture.
“But of course, they got it wrong. They never did care about getting it right. The media are going to tell whatever story they want to tell. They always have. They always will.”
Twist Ending with Emotional Impact
I won’t say too much because of spoilers but using a dramatic twist, Reid is able to link Monique and Evelyn’s stories in an emotional and engaging way. Beyond this twist, there isn’t much of a happy ending but it feels exactly right for the story told and I can’t imagine the novel finishing any other way.
Summing up the absolute brilliance of this novel seems impossible. So, I’ll simply say, that if you enjoy historical fiction with raw and real characters, fantastic writing, and intense emotion, pick this one up. I guarantee you won’t regret it.
I’ll just be over here recommending this new favourite to pretty much everyone I know.