Monday, September 4, 2017

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid (2017)

Evelyn Hugo is an actress who rose to fame in the 1950s and became as well-known for her string of marriages as for her acting skill. But she has always kept her private life as private as possible. Now elderly, she contacts a little-known journalist named Monique to write her life story for her, as long as she promises not to publish until after Hugo's death. Monique is baffled about why Hugo chose her, but is happy to listen as Evelyn Hugo finally reveals her secrets, once and for all.

This is a marked departure from Reid's other books. It is more....literary? I'm sure a book reviewer would say it far surpasses her other books which, though they have very thought-provoking themes, are written in a light breezy style. Here, we get all the detail and description of a typical historical novel as we hear the full story of a fascinating woman's scandalous life. I certainly can't fault it - it's a great book - but I'm disappointed because I so enjoy Reid's typical, unique style.

But without comparing it to her other books, there is little to criticize. There's one thing, though, and that's the whole framing device of Monique and her story. I'm not a fan of this device in books as it's usually superfluous. It is here, too. There's a purpose, of course, something you learn at the end that ties their two stories together, but I found Hugo's story interesting enough without it. As often happens in books with this structure, we didn't get enough of Monique's story or get it often enough to keep it in my mind. So every time the focus switched back to her I had to remind myself what was going on with her, sometimes needing to flip back in the book searching for the last bit about her. I also just didn't think Monique was a very good character. For a journalist, she sure made a lot of assumptions and jumped to conclusions, sometimes without even hearing out what Evelyn was trying to say.

Despite these flaws, it was a pretty great book. Evelyn Hugo's story was incredibly compelling. The big question posed early on was "Who was the love of your life?" With seven husbands, there were plenty to choose from, and there had always been questions about which of her marriages were for love and which for convenience or to help her career. But it turns out - and this is revealed fairly early - that the love of Evelyn's life was another actress, Celia St. James. Anyone in a same-sex relationship at that time had to think long and hard about how to conduct their lives, and who to reveal themselves to; of course that went double if they were famous. If a regular person lost a job because their boss found out they were in a same-sex relationship, that person could still find another job even if they had to move to another town to do it. But a famous person is too well-known to escape any information that is revealed about them. Evelyn and Celia spent literally decades trying to navigate their situation, sometimes breaking up for years before inevitably coming together again.

Meanwhile, there were marriages, and Evelyn did love at least a couple of her husbands. The first one was just to get her out of her town, and she even got married once or twice to distract the press from other situations she didn't want them to focus on. One she married for love, and he turned out to be abusive. Another, Harry Cameron, was a close friend throughout her life. Ultimately, she was a smart woman who knew how to manipulate people to get what she wanted. Her choices weren't always kind, but they were usually thoughtful.

As long as I don't think about how this book compares to her others, I like it quite a bit! It just feels like a lot of other people's books, and her older books don't. But if I need another fix of the old-school, Taylor Jenkins Reid, I still haven't read her very first book, Forever, Interrupted. If you like historical fiction, especially about Hollywood lives, I'd recommend The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.

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