Taylor Jenkins Reid is best known for her most recent novel, Daisy Jones and the Six, which has collected a string of impressive accolades (The Glass Bell Award for fiction and Goodreads’ Choice Award for Historical Fiction to name a few) and is even in the works for a series adaption produced by Reese Witherspoon.
Before Daisy Jones and The Six, though, Reid published five books, and I finally got around to reading one of them recently. To my great delight, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo measured up to its successor, straddling the line between fiction and reality with the same finesse that made Daisy Jones an instant hit.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is actually the first example of Reid experimenting with the form of fictional biography, taking inspiration from real people and real events to create a unique, multi-faceted, and utterly convincing original tale.
The story follows unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant as she embarks on the biggest scoop of her – or anyone’s – career: an exclusive, tell-all interview with the reclusive Hollywood icon, Evelyn Hugo. For the first time in history, the most famous woman of Old Hollywood is prepared to shed light on her infamous number of husbands, all of whom she has outlived. The narrative interweaves Monique’s present perspective, as she meets aging Evelyn and learns the full extent of what she’s expected to write about, with the intimate voice of Evelyn herself, as she recounts her life. The novel is sectioned by husband, following Evelyn pre-fame and full of innocence, through the rise and fall of her career and personal life. Sections are divided by newspaper clippings – an immersive tool that delivers information quickly to readers without pulling them out of the story.
The character of Evelyn is a fascinating amalgamation of true old Hollywood icons; the bottle-blonde bombshell of Marilyn Monroe, the endless ex-husbands of Elizabeth Taylor, the graceful aging of Audrey Hepburn and the beautiful tragedy of Judy Garland. Reid, who studied film, pours her admiration for these women into the pages of her novel, creating complex, nuanced characters. As Monique observes of the starlet after learning of her tragic life, “I remember how larger-than-life she seemed. She is so painfully human to be now.” Evelyn’s story is one that could easily fit into the actual history of Hollywood.
Marilyn Monroe has been a long-time idol of mine, and I’ve immersed myself in her world reading biographies, watching documentaries, and devouring any information I could on the late actress. So, on a personal level, Evelyn Hugo appealed to me from the beginning. For those who might not know the dirty laundry of Hollywood as I do, this story will be eye-opening.
No matter how much Reid clearly admires classic actresses, she also doesn’t shy away from everything that made Old Hollywood ugly. Using Evelyn’s tale of abuse, alcoholism, infidelity and death to pull away the glamorous curtain, revealing the Great and Powerful Oz as the trembling man all along. Reid tackles issues of white-washing, sexism, homophobia, and the industry politics that dictated, and often times destroyed, the lives of those simply trying to make a name for themselves in the 1950s – 60s.
I read Evelyn Hugo in three days, during a time that I was struggling to make time to open a book. It’s a testament to Reid’s compelling writing style that I carved that time aside, and stayed up late into the night, determined to uncover more of Evelyn’s story.
The central theme – of deceit in the name of love – was also a personal one for me. I have been an out lesbian for five years now, but my connection to those in the closet is unwavering. I am constantly floored by the strength of my predecessors – those who came before me and paved the way for me to be open and free in my sexuality. To read a story of such an epic, all-consuming love story between two women, centre stage during a time that homosexuality was illegal, was – at times – confronting and painful, but incredibly rewarding.
Evelyn has to compromise her integrity, the love of her life, and many other irreplaceable things on her journey to fame. Her choices aren’t always wise, and often incredibly selfish, but it is what makes her so beautifully complex. I loved Evelyn more for her flaws and appreciated Reid’s courage to portray a woman that is both the perfect, polished façade and the gritty, deceitful inner self. This was the reality for many in Hollywood and still is. Yet, it is rarely given the platform it deserves in fiction.
Reid even took it a step further and explored the identity politics surrounding lesbian and bisexuals, a topic of contention even in 2020. At first, I became frustrated by Evelyn’s partner for her biphobia – it misrepresented my own feelings as a lesbian and that of my gay friends. But I quickly realised this is a very real discrimination that bisexual women constantly face, even by the people who love them. While Evelyn’s partner makes cruel choices based on jealous misconceptions about bisexuality, that is not meant to be the takeaway. Instead, as Evelyn puts it herself, “the bad was out-weighed by so much good.” Evelyn and her partner made mistakes, endlessly, but they repeatedly found their way back to one another. They figured out a way to be better.
Their love is described in the most touching passage:
"You imagine a world where the two of you can go out to dinner on a Saturday night, and no one thinks twice about it. It makes you want to cry, the simplicity of it. The smallness of it. You have worked so hard for a life so grand. And now all you want are the smallest freedoms. The daily peace of loving plainly."
If you are fascinated by Hollywood’s history, cinema, complex female characters and anything LGBT+, you will love The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo By Taylor Jenkins Reid 389 pages. 2017.