I have previously received PR products from Penguin, who own Simon & Schuster.
CW: underage relationship, domestic abuse, homophobia, alcoholism, cancer, suicide. No CWs are discussed in this review, only mentioned.
If you’re on book twitter or bookstagram and you’ve not heard of this book, I would be surprised. Taylor Jenkins Reid is a pretty popular author right now, and I totally understand why. This book certainly did not disappoint me! I love books that do something a little bit different with the format, so The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was one that I thought I’d enjoy from the off.
The story of Evelyn’s life is presented to the reader as a series of sessions with Monique Grant, the writer Evelyn Hugo has chosen to write her biography. While the narrative does go back and forth a little between the Evelyn of the past and the Evelyn of the present, the past certainly dominates this story. Generally I’m not a fan of books that jump back and forth, but this one really works this way. In the present, there’s something of a subplot with Monique — she is going through a divorce, and trying to manage writing Evelyn’s biography while being pressured by the editor of the magazine she works for, who wants an Evelyn Hugo cover — but Monique takes the back seat next to the powerhouse that is Evelyn Hugo.
While the story is told as a retrospective, there isn’t a great deal of reflection. Evelyn says repeatedly that she regrets very little, and is only ready to reveal the truth about her life and marriages now that almost everyone else in the story of her life has passed away, and she requests Monique publish the biography after Evelyn herself has passed. For the most part, the story is simply presented as any other first person narrative, and the reader is almost able to forget that somewhere within the universe of this story sits Monique with a pen, paper, and recording device.
Split down into sections named after the seven husbands, this book is able to cover a wide range of different themes. Evelyn’s relationships with her husbands is rarely, if ever, conventional, and each of her marriages marks a different stage in her life. There is one common thread through each of her marriages: they are all to advance or protect Evelyn’s career. Through Evelyn’s marriages, Taylor Jenkins Reid is able to explore several hard-hitting themes, including an underage relationship, domestic abuse, homophobia, and the price of celebrity.
As a character, Evelyn is incredible. She takes what she has, no matter how little, and turns it into something incredible. By sheer force of will, she’s able to forge a career for herself and not only that, she’s able to twist the media narrative about her life to her advantage at every turn. She’s often cold and calculating, but we also see other sides to her. To survive in Hollywood in this period, one had to be ready to take advantage of everyone and anyone else, which is an important lesson Evelyn learns early on. Underneath it all, she is a romantic, and a lot of what she does is in an attempt to find and cling on to love.
If you know much about this book at all, you’ll know that the love of Evelyn’s life was not any one of her seven husbands, but her long-term, on again off again lover, Celia St. James. The relationship between Celia and Evelyn is beautiful, but as tumultuous as anything else in Evelyn’s life. Having to hide their relationship to protect their careers, and themselves, takes its toll. While I certainly hope that these days it isn’t so critical to actor’s careers to hide their sexualities, there is definitely a lot of elements that are still very relevant to celebrity culture today. If it was bad with paparazzi in the 1950s, imagine how celebrities now feel with the invention of telescopic lenses and social media allowing for anyone and everyone to post and share images. This was a really interesting consideration for me, and even without the pressures of being in the closet, I can understand why celebrities and public figures might want to take a step back and protect their private lives.
I loved that Evelyn is able to own her sexuality in this book. Early on in her relationship with Celia, she does struggle somewhat with her identity, lacking the language to describe it. Celia calls Evelyn a lesbian: Evelyn rejects the label, saying she loved her second husband Don Adler. By the end of the book, Evelyn is happy to describe herself as bisexual, which is something I love to see in books. While I don’t agree that labels are the be all and end all and I don’t believe anyone should have to label themselves if they don’t want to, it’s particularly important to me that sexualities other than gay or straight are acknowledged broadly, to normalise them.
My one issue with this book was Monique. I didn’t enjoy the early parts of this book, and worried I’d end up DNFing. I found Monique’s voice early on very shallow, though she definitely grew as the book went on. The first few pages seemed to me not very well written, and Monique just came across as rather annoying. Fortunately, Evelyn’s voice was a lot more enjoyable for me, and I ended up really liking this book overall.