Review: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

4.5 out of 5 stars The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

When Hollywood legend Evelyn Hugo sits down to tell her life story, she wants one thing made clear: “I am not a good person.” But through learning the intimate details of her life on- and off-screen, the reader eagerly joins the book’s thematic debate: what if you do the wrong thing for the right reason?

Evelyn is a mash up of the best (read: most useful) parts of Hollywood’s golden era bombshells. She’s got Katherine Hepburn’s backbone, Bette Davis’ scathing wit, Marilyn Monroe’s looks, and Elizabeth Taylor’s cunning. (In fact, if you enjoyed this book, I strongly recommend two podcasts: Even the Rich – The Lives & Loves of Elizabeth Taylor, and Morbid’s look into Judy Garland’s life in The History of the Wizard Of Oz. The parallels are stunning.) She’s a rags-to-riches, self-made megastar who all along, let those around her think they were calling the shots. And as any great, dishy silver screen dame does: Evelyn has secrets.

Namely, she’s bisexual. And the love of her life is fellow A-list actress Celia St. James.

Now, the book is called “husbands”. Evelyn has them, and for various reasons – even love, sometimes. But make no mistake, this is her story. And through interviews with her biographer (which are told as flashbacks, not conversations), Evelyn spills every drop of tea.

There’s fascinating Tinseltown history here: the studio system, how actors were contracted, how movies were made. Interesting side plots. But most central to this book is the love story, the LGBT storyline. It spans so many eras as to be continually eye-opening: the social norms and even laws about homosexuality in every decade from the 1950s to today are made deeply personal. Evelyn, and her gay friends and lovers, are secretive and daring, scared and practical, private and public. Their love has a ferocity to it, and not just for all that the world works against them. It also has a tested, forged nature that the quintessentially media-portrayed heterosexual relationships of the time(s) lack: real life vs. the picture-perfect husbands and wives straight out of central casting. There’s an art to how Evelyn and Co. navigate their lives. It isn’t always pretty or “good.” But it’s survival under intense scrutiny. They chose to stay closeted not just for safety, but for the sake of success – and that idea still plays. Evelyn knows that even today, her coming out is still the biggest scoop atop a life filled with gossip. It’s messy, but it’s proud. People have looked at her all her life, now Evelyn is finally letting them see.

The best part of this book is Evelyn, and the best part of Evelyn is her matter-of-fact storytelling. As a character, she is more fully realized than most real people. She knows what she’s done and why. At times cold and calculating, and other times reflective and regretful, Evelyn is (almost too) perfectly self-aware. People have always dreamed of being Evelyn Hugo for her glamour and fame. As a reader, I dream of being this honest and unflinching when examining myself.

The supporting cast features some true gems (though Monique is a bit of a weenie). Many of the characters have Evelyn’s mix of good and bad, in different measures. So when she says she’s not a good person, it gives the reader pause. Yes, she made mistakes. Questionable choices. And at least one thing that was actually, morally, very wrong. This brings her story back to the central theme: What if the wrong thing is done for the right reason? In this story, Evelyn isn’t just the hero or the villain. But she’s always the star.

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