Taylor Jenkins Reid has done it yet again. She has taken my breath away, and I probably will not be getting it back anytime soon.
Thankfully, I was lucid enough to realise that the book is fiction and that Evelyn Hugo doesn’t actually exist, unlike what happened for Daisy Jones and the Six.
BUT. Evelyn Hugo as a character feels so…refreshing that she steps off the page. Her story, her voice seems to leave the pages of the book (or in my case, the screen from which I was reading it), and step into reality, green gown and all.
But before I get into the book, here is a quick summary:
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is about a fictitious Hollywood icon (real-life parallels would probably be Meryl Streep, Michelle Pfeiffer or an older Julia Roberts), who has suddenly requested thus far unknown journalist Monique Grant to do a piece about her auctioning her dresses for charity. Except, when Monique gets to Evelyn and begins to interview her, it quickly turns out the auctioning of the dresses is just a cover for what Evelyn wants to tell Monique in reality: her whole life story for a biography. The good, the bad, and especially the ugly. And at the end of the tale, what Monique finds out will intertwine with her own life in a truly unexpected way, tying the two women’s lives together.
It is not an exaggeration to say that I was hooked; line, sinker and all. Unfortunately, it took me an embarrassingly long time to start reading the book, even after one of my best friends recommended it to me. After all, “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” sounds kind of like the trashy beach read that would be just tabloid material and full of bad writing. In fact, the book seems aware of this; Monique makes reference to this in the book when near the end, she asks Evelyn if she really wants the book to be called “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo”. But though Evelyn knows that people would be fixating on her seven husbands at first, she confidently tells Monique at the end that it doesn’t matter to her. “Because they are just husbands. I am Evelyn Hugo.”
And the book reflects this so clearly. Throughout the whole story, as we see Evelyn’s rise to fame from a young half Cuban girl running from an abusive father to a small starlet, and then exploding first onto the national scene, and then onto international screens as she becomes the icon that is Evelyn Hugo, we are made clear about one thing: there is only one Evelyn Hugo.
The book doesn’t tell this to our faces though. And it certainly doesn’t shy away from pulling her off the pedestal other characters put her on. It shows us various moments of Evelyn’s dark sides: her hatred of men ogling her when she was a young woman maturing as a teenager, her fear of losing her stardom to other people, and moments of ugly pettiness, greed and even loathing of other people. And the last awful, horrible thing that she does. And yet, we never turn against her. Or at least, I didn’t. Because the way Reid weaves the story makes Evelyn Hugo so utterly sympathetic that even in moments when she seems cruel, inhumane even, we realise that in her shoes we would do the same.
She weaponises her sexuality to sleep her way into roles she wants, and yet no part of me felt compelled to slut shame her or to decry her as being ethically wrong. She does things that benefit her or her career. Or else to save her friends and the people that she loves. And when she marries seven times over, each time her reasoning for them tinged with selfishness and probably a bit of greed, I never saw her as being immoral.
Because she did it for herself; to remake herself from the young Cuban girl fleeing from a drunken father into an international icon beloved over the world was to prove to the world that she could do it. She takes pride in her sexuality; in her body, using it as a weapon that only she has the unique power to wield. There is something so uniquely empowering about that, especially for a young woman growing into a world that has not changed much from hers.
As for her seven husbands, we learn that she wasn’t all calculating in the marriages either. Despite her first marriage being purely for her own gain, she carries at least a bit of love for the men in the subsequent six marriages she finds herself in. She isn’t a stone-cold bitch who switches between men like a pendulum; rather, she’s simply a human who falls in and out of love with people, with just a tinge of manipulation to set her apart.
But of course, her two great loves (Harry Cameron, and SPOILER: Celia St. James) are the ones that the author spends the most time on. Through these two characters, we see the side of Evelyn that she does not show the world, or before then, she does not show us: the ability to love selflessly, tenderly and abundantly. SPOILER: both of these people are queer (more specifically, gay.)
Harry and Evelyn’s friendship is one that stands the test of time, even throughout all of Evelyn’s scandals and the multiple losses of awards. Reading the unabashed way that they loved each other (platonically), even when early on Evelyn finds out that Harry is gay, is amazing, especially in a time when the only acceptable way to treat queer people was with contempt and hatred. I was incredibly moved by the care they show each other. THarry supports Evelyn, backs her up even when he has his own concerns and protects her as best as he can, and Evelyn later reciprocates this by spending time with him and their daughter, and pulling him out of the depths of his alcohol-fuelled grief when his lover dies. And throughout her life, he remains the most important man to her despite her circling through seven husbands. A friendship like this is rare, and honestly, one that I may spend the rest of my life searching for. SPOILER: when he dies and she is inconsolable, it truly hammers in how deeply they loved and impacted each others’ lives, especially touching when their relationship could have just been a relationship of mutual monetary benefit.
And then, there’s Celia. The effervescent, ethereal, everlasting love of Evelyn’s life. Who starts out as being someone that Evelyn cannot tolerate. And yet, as the two slowly bond (again establishing a relationship of mutual benefit), there begins to awaken something within Evelyn that before this, she never felt before. A pure depiction of queer love is hard to find in modern fiction, especially when it comes to two adult women. And yet, the way that Reid describes how Evelyn is in love with Celia made my heart melt. Early on, despite everything that Evelyn has done so far to establish her name and fight for her stardom, she easily gives up her pride and dignity to be truly happy for Celia being nominated for the film they costarred in while she wasn’t. That is such a beautiful and effortless way of showing the way that Evelyn has fallen for Celia.
Then comes the subsequent development of their relationship; from Evelyn finding out that Celia is a lesbian, to them moving in together after Evelyn’s split from Don and their subsequent two splits and reunions. Throughout the roller coaster of their love, I never felt that the relationship was being commodified, crucified or only celebrated. Rather, it showed two women who were deeply, madly in love with each other; who could not stand certain parts of the other person and yet came back together because they loved each other to bear being apart. Twice.
There is sex involved, don’t get me wrong. But Reid never goes into full detail. It doesn’t devolve into porn, as it could easily have to titillate, excite and outrage the readers. Instead, it shows that sex between the two women is sacred, one that both women treasure. And when Evelyn has sex with other men to (in her mind) protect Celia and the relationship they have, it instead upsets Celia. But as the book makes clear, it is not the sex that hurts her or causes her to leave. It’s the idea that Evelyn doesn’t want to give up her own stardom to live her truth with Celia, as Celia wants to herself. And that Evelyn is too attached to her fame and the power that she has to give it up for anyone. So when near the book, Evelyn proposes leaving to go away with Celia, giving up her whole career to be with her, it truly was a refreshing and nice surprise.
SPOILER: When Celia dies as well, Evelyn is broken. Though she learnt to deal with the death of Harry, Celia’s death brings the grief of losing the two great loves of her life crashing together, tearing Evelyn apart. As she describes, “after Celia died, the devastating luxury of panic came, and it never left.”
And the eventual twist of the story ultimately left me reeling, shell-shocked in my seat even as I furiously turned the pages, desperate to know how it would be resolved.
I love everything about this book. The complex way the characters are written, the glamour in how they are portrayed, the ugly sides of them that reflect the sides modern celebrities don’t show us, and most importantly, the humanity in how every single person is shown. And the fact that Reid’s style flows so smoothly that I never once felt like stopping is definitely an added bonus. More than once, I gasped and cried as I saw the characters change throughout the book, take actions I didn’t believe they would take, and felt every single joy and pain they went through. I loved the way that queerness was portrayed in the book: not as something taboo or to be sold or as the only thing that defined the characters but instead yet another aspect of who they are. They never let their queerness define them, and the representation that they got in the book was truly a nice change. That Evelyn corrects Monique about her bisexuality is also amazing to see, especially since bisexuality still has such huge misrepresentation.
All in all, I ADORED this book. It took any expectations I had and propelled them through the roof, breaking through any pre conceinved notions I might have had and making this easily one of the best books I’ve read in a long while. The only criticism I would have is that the last twist was introduced and resolved perhaps a little too quickly, and I wanted a little more exploration, but I am still rather satisfied with how Reid ended it.
If I could give this a 6 out of 5 stars, I would. Instead, I have to settle for a 5/5. Perfect in every way, just like how Evelyn Hugo was seen.