Book review by Femke Boom
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is a historical novel written by Taylor Jenkins Reid. It is a fictive biography of a Hollywood actress, which is set in the 1950s. There is an almost tangible tension between the ‘50s mind-set and sexuality, as well as feminism. The story is partially depicted in modern times with flashbacks to the ‘50s-‘90s as the actress tells her story.
“Sometimes reality comes crashing down on you. Other times reality simply waits, patiently, for you to run out of the energy it takes to deny it.”
Evelyn Hugo is a young woman from Cuban descent. She hides her Latin origins, as Hollywood prefers white people, and dyes her hair blonde. It supposedly creates an effect that she seems a natural blonde with a tan, although the onlookers know it can’t be so. Evelyn uses her sensuality to move up in the world, going from a poor girl from Hell’s Kitchen (New York) to a Hollywood starlet. The thing that is amazing about this character is that she’s absolutely unapologetic. She admits to her ghostwriter that she wanted to become famous and all the things she had been willing to do for it. This includes sexual intercourse with several men, as well as a variety of marriages. This resulted in a somewhat scandalous reputation. However, marrying solely for the purpose of becoming more well known would be too two-dimensional. And Evelyn Hugo is anything but a two-dimensional character.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo revolves around ghostwriter Monique Grant’s question to Evelyn: who was her true love? The final answer might surprise the reader; whereas, at first, you’re lead to think Evelyn had a ‘favourite’ husband, the love of her life was actually another woman. The novel shows an old actress coming out as bisexual in a modern society, as she had to, sometimes desperately, hide it during her heyday. She becomes frustrated when Monique once labels her as a lesbian, claiming that she had, indeed, loved men before and enjoyed spending time with them. This, along with having had to conceal her Latin roots, is Evelyn Hugo’s bane.
“Don’t ignore half of me so you can fit me into a box. Don’t do that.”
The husbands of Evelyn Hugo can be divided into three groups: desire for fame, love, and convenience. The latter thus being to hide her relationship with a fellow actress. Her happiest marriage was with a homosexual friend, who was keen on hiding his sexuality, just like Evelyn. It wasn’t just due to the social stigma with regard to LGBT+, but the USA legal system was anti-gay at least up until the ‘70s, which had resulted in (along with some other causes) the Stonewall Riots in 1969. The riots are mentioned in the novel, as Evelyn, her husband, and lover donate money to the cause – unable to actually participate in the protests themselves due to their position.
I find it interesting that Reid plays with the concept of ‘slut-shaming’. This is shown through Evelyn being unapologetic about her relationships, and realistic about sex; an act that is enjoyable for both parties involved, and that there’s no reason to feel shame for liking it nor for having had several partners. Whatever society thinks be damned, basically.
“Oh I know the whole world prefers a woman who doesn’t know her power, but I’m sick of all that.”
The formatting of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is interesting as well. As mentioned before, it switches between the present and the past as Evelyn talks to the ghostwriter Monique. The novel also shows Monique’s perspective on the story; what you read is – supposedly – written by Monique. This is an intriguing move of Reid, as it has caused confusion amongst some readers who assumed that Evelyn Hugo has actually existed. It reads like a real biography, the characters feel genuine and realistic which adds to the illusion of it being a biography. In addition to this, there are snippets of (made up) newspaper and magazine articles that are about Evelyn’s life. They show mostly gossip, and how Evelyn, through her behaviour, managed to manipulate the papers into publishing particular stories.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo shows the pros and cons of a life in the limelight, struggles with sexuality and femininity, as well as social stigmas. If you read this novel, you may find yourself secretly wondering too… what would Evelyn do?