In The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, a young journalist named Monique is personally requested to interview a glamorous Old Hollywood star named Evelyn Hugo about her wardrobe, which is revealed to be a mere ploy to entice Monique to write Evelyn’s life story. So early on in her career, it is inexplicable why such a famous actress would ask for Monique to carry out this task, as well as grant her exclusive rights to a multi-million dollar book deal. As Monique listens to the story behind every marriage, the reasoning behind Evelyn’s choice of author becomes painfully clear.
Although the writing is nothing flowery, the plot is very compelling, no doubt fuelling the novel's 'booktok' popularity. Neatly divided into a section for every husband, the irony of the book is that the true love of Evelyn’s life was actually a woman – her former costar Celia St. James. The novel is interspersed with tabloid clippings that humorously overlook the possibility of Evelyn’s queer romance, focusing instead on the sham-marriages, which were often mere publicity stunts in Evelyn’s shameless quest for stardom.
There is good representation of a queer relationship in this book. The two women’s bond is tender, and their clumsy miscommunications are realistic. They are both problematic and stubborn in their own right: Evelyn is too clout-hungry and image-conscious to put Celia’s needs first and dare to come out, and Celia’s jealousy over Evelyn’s husbands prevents her from trusting Evelyn’s choices. Nevertheless, their points of reunion are touching, and you find yourself rooting for them to overcome their internalised prejudices caused by the toxic pressures of Hollywood. With Evelyn, this is internalised homophobia, and with Celia, this is biphobia.
Where the representation falls flat, however, is in Taylor Jenkins Reid’s choice of race for her two main characters. Monique is Black mixed-race and Evelyn is Cuban. Although I do not dispute the need for more diversity in literature, I don’t believe a white author usually possesses enough knowledge of racial experiences to be able to craft a realistic portrayal of BIPOC – at least not as main characters who require a far greater sense of interiority than supporting characters. Indeed, on the very first page of Chapter 1, Monique describes her appearance ‘as a biracial woman’, saying she has ‘light brown skin and dark brown eyes courtesy of my black father [and] an abundance of face freckles courtesy of my white mother’. Any mixed race reader would be immediately puzzled by the odd distribution of genetics described in this paragraph. There are a few other points in the narrative when the characters comment in passing on the experiences of BIPOC in America, and knowing that this author has not lived those experiences means that these moments ring a little hollow or insincere, in my view.
This novel unfolds cinematically and is certainly entertaining. Although the exact rights situation for a TV adaptation remains unclear, I'm confident this will make a better watch than read, provided that Black and Cuban writers are brought on board to script.
“...The fact that I wanted to be around Celia all the time, the fact that I cared about her enough that I valued her happiness over my own, the fact that I liked to think about that moment when she stood in front of me without her shirt on – now, you put those pieces together, and you say: one plus one equals I’m in love with a woman. But back then, at least for me, I didn't have that equation. And if you don't even realise there’s a formula to be working with, how the hell are you supposed to find the answer?" – Taylor Jenkins Reid, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, pp.124-125
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK