The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, a novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid about a former superstar actress now living a reclusive life, mentions many great (fictional) moments in cinematic history. One of the career-defining moments for Evelyn Hugo (born Evelyn Herrera) was a scene in a French movie, in which she slowly rises up from the water, fully naked. Instead of showing her breasts, the camera cuts to black right before they will be completely visible. There are many such examples in Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel, and they make for an entertaining read. But somehow this novel reflects that scene; it cuts to black too often, instead of showing everything – and in this case, it’s not necessarily a good thing. Want to know why? Read on!
When Evelyn Hugo, who hasn’t given any interviews for years, suddenly reaches out to Monique Grant, a talented but overlooked journalist, and asks her to write her biography, the country can’t wait to read it. But Monique, struggling with insecurity after her husband left her, sees it as a chance not to focus on her own messy life for a change. Furthermore, she is dying to know why Hugo picked her, instead of a more distinguished writer. As Hugo tells her story, more and more is illuminated about both women.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo seems to have it all: money, fame, a strong female protagonist, fashion, scandal, and, above all else, love. For a woman who has had seven marriages (and has outlived all these men), must have had a spectacular love life, mustn’t she? Yes, she has, but not in the way anyone expected. In fact, none of these husbands were the love of Evelyn’s life; instead, she had a forbidden love, which she kept out of view for all these years – but at a cost.
Evelyn Hugo’s career started in the 1950s, a time in which women weren’t supposed to have any opinions or to be independent. She had to change her name, dye her hair, and lose her Spanish accent in order to become the famous actress she always wanted to be, as well as the most beautiful woman in the world. This shows how Hollywood works; it’s the men who call the shots. Still, Evelyn manages to work the system and plays with these rules. For instance, she stages some scandals, to have the paparazzi confused about her real identity.
Finding one’s true self is what this novel is truly about. As Evelyn tells her story, the audience finds out why she made these decisions, who this mysterious love of her life was, and why she picked Monique to be her biographer. It is written in such a way that you just have to keep reading, and I have to admit that I finished this book in one sitting. There were twists and turns in every chapter, and I really wanted to find out where this would go.
However, when I had finally reached husband number seven, I had kind of lost interest. Somehow this great story, with all the grandiosity of a classic Hollywood film featuring the most beautiful people of the world, felt empty. Choices that Evelyn made didn’t make sense to me, or felt forced – because, in the end, Evelyn failed to become a real person, and the same goes for Monique. Part of it is because of the style in which this novel was written. Evelyn and Monique have the exact same way of talking, which makes it unrealistic, seeing as Evelyn is a golden age movie actress, and Monique is a young journalist. Furthermore, the snippets of the tabloids were all written in the same way, as though journalism hasn’t changed over the course of fifty years.
But the real reason why The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo didn’t really have an impact on me was the questions that didn’t feel answered by the end of the novel: why didn’t Evelyn divorce from her second husband sooner? Why didn’t she just tell the world about her secret relationship? Why did she divorce the only man she really did love? Why did she suddenly want children? And what made Monique so insecure? Why does she end up still admiring Evelyn? It felt like Taylor Jenkins Reid skipped over some of the more difficult plot issues and hoped we would just go along with it.
Admittedly, I did go along with it – but not until the very end. While The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is one of the more entertaining novels I have read in a while, I felt like it could have been so much more. This is a supposedly feminist novel about smashing the patriarchy, but to me it never really succeeded in doing so, because Evelyn’s determination to remain successful hindered the opportunity to make a real change in the traditional Hollywood culture. We never truly get to the bottom of things, echoing that famous scene in Hugo’s movie, which they claimed would work because it left the audience begging for more. It was shocking, scandalous, and wildly successful in the 1970s, but the industry has changed quite a bit since then. And so has its audience.
What did you think of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo? Do you think easy reading and controversial topics never go well together? Do let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to follow me for more book musings!