The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo seems to have taken the internet by storm recently, a few years since its 2017 release. Its cover, a bronze woman in an elegant emerald-green dress and a short crop of bright blonde hair, is practically engrained in my brain. For several months before I actually found the time to read it, I saw that shiny green dress everywhere: on publishing Twitter, where publishing hopefuls and editors alike tend to congregate, and where the avid readers and reviewers are: on BookTok and Bookstagram. Exalted as a ‘raucous beach read full of Hollywood gossip and twists’, I was curious about what made this book so outstanding to what was clearly a large amount of people.
Author Taylor Jenkins Reid concocts an extravagant life story: that of Old Hollywood, new money American movie star Evelyn Hugo. Born Evelyn Herrera in 1938 in poverty in Hell’s Kitchen to Cuban parents, Evelyn Hugo becomes the star of the century. Now, in 2017, at the author’s time of writing and at the age of 79, Evelyn is willing to give a tell-all interview about her life: her humble origins, her precocious adolescent years, the shocking seven husbands she has all outlived, and the tragic death of her one child – Connor Cameron – to breast cancer. But she’s only willing to share her lifetime of secrets with one person and one person only: Monique Grant, a thirty-five-year-old LA-native and little-known journalist, so not who you’d expect at first. By the novel’s end, we are left with an entirely different understanding of the luxurious Evelyn Hugo, in all her vulnerable glory, and exactly why she insisted on speaking only to Monique.
At the very beginning, I wasn’t too keen on the book. There’s a short section in which Monique reflects on the way the world has perceived her as a biracial woman, the daughter of a white mother and a Black father, that just felt a little too cringey. In the end though, this is a small price to pay, and something easily overlooked, by the greatness of the novel in its entirety.
There were a lot of plot twits in this book, and I think all of them took me by genuine surprise – particularly the big one at the end, the one with a swathe of unexpected repercussions. From the outside, Evelyn’s life has long been full of glitz and glamour. With her ample chest, that apparently no-one can take their eyes off of, she’s a sex symbol from the moment she shows up at Sunset Studios in the early 50s, and an icon after starring in the fictional 1959 film version of Little Women (there was one actually released in 1949) as none other than main character Jo March. Her career will falter and it will take off, and her personal life is a mess more often than not. She makes many a morally dubious decision, and is ferocious and calculating in her desire to be the biggest star on the planet. She has passionate sex in the bathroom at the Oscars, a quiet abortion in Tijuana, immense and great love affairs, and is visited by death more than once. Boring is not a word that can be used to describe either the character of Evelyn Hugo, or Reid’s book about her.
She’s such a spectacular woman – by which I mean she, herself, is a spectacle. But she’s also deeply, deeply human.Monique, about Evelyn, p. 339.
As the reader, we are constantly rotated between Monique’s first-person perspective in 2017, as she sits with Evelyn in her New York apartment to talk about her life, and Evelyn’s own perspective and retelling of the life she has lived. At several points, Evelyn tells her story in the second-person, which is an incredibly smart decision on Reid’s part. Evelyn makes some incredibly difficult choices throughout her life, and has some heartbreaking and harrowing experiences, and we are put firmly and squarely in her shoes for those moments, really feeling the gravity of her decisions.
He is clean. You have not bathed.
He smells like soap. You smell like booze.
He is sitting up. You are lying down.
This, too, is a calculation.Evelyn, the morning after eloping with singer Mick Riva to Las Vegas in in 1961. P.
So, as titled in the novel itself, each earning their own chapter, the seven husbands are as follows: Poor Ernie Diaz, who fourteen-year-old Evelyn uses to hitch a ride to Hollywood; Goddamn Don Adler, who is Hollywood royalty and old money himself; Gullible Mick Riva, a singer that is painfully obsessed with Ev; Clever Rex North, an Icelandic-born slick talker; Brilliant, Kindhearted, Tortured Harry Cameron, an old Sunset Studios producer, Evelyn’s longest-lasting husband, dearest companion, and father to her only child; Disappointing Max Girard, her old French director obsessed with her chest; and finally Agreeable Robert Jamison, a kind man who knew what he signed up for.
Beyond the eyebrow-raising seven husbands, there was so much more to this novel than I was initially anticipating. I thought it would be all about sordid affairs, complicated love stories, and ostentatious wealth – and it is, but it’s also much, much more than that. There’s a lot in here about identity, about navigating a world that wasn’t really made with you in mind. It’s difficult not to give it all away, especially as casual spoilers are readily available online, though I surprisingly managed to avoid them, or forget them by the time it took me to read the book. I love complicated, even ruthless, female leads, and that is exactly what Evelyn is. She’s done some ugly things, but remains a woman beautifully dedicated to what she loves most: her family. Love her or hate her, it’s still an obsession. On the other hand, while I found myself starting to understand and even appreciate Evelyn more and more, I didn’t particularly care for Monique. That said, I found Evelyn’s obvious influence on her – and thus her growth – quite charming and a little riveting. She became more willing to say what she wanted and mean it, more willing to go after it.
At first, I wanted to give The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo four stars, but now, I think this would be just a little bit dishonest. Reid has an impressive ability to put us in Evelyn’s shoes and see things through her eyes. As well as that, she can draw out a plot twist (or rather, a shock revelation) from beginning to end, refer to it constantly, build up the tension and suspense, and still make it something you never really saw coming, or at least I didn’t. There’s also a grand, stupidly dramatic, and intense love affair at the heart of Evelyn’s life story, one that makes your heart soar and then stop, and that is also a testament to Reid’s abilities and achievements here. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, the story, is fantastic. The actual seven husbands, well that is a different story entirely.