The Seven Husbands Of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid is now one of my favoruite books that I’ve read this year. The novel is fast paced, quick witted, and heartbreakingly honest in a way that many books try for and just fall short of.
The story follows the life of 79 year old Evelyn Hugo, a star from Old Hollywood who’s decided to offer Monique, a magazine journalist with an uninspiring career and personal life, the chance to write her memoirs. No one els is offered this chance, and Monique is baffled but grateful to be chosen for the job. She travels to Evelyn’s home in the Upper East Side and listens to the ins and outs of rising to stardom in the 1950s up until she chose to leave the limelight in the 1980s. Slowly, as Evelyn reveals what she calls her ‘truth’ to Monique, the real story behind the glitz and glamour of Hollywood begins to shine through, revealing how corrupt and prejudice Old Hollywood really was.
The book takes the form of a news breaking expose that gives the reader the feeling of trespassing on something that should be private. The world building is astounding and there were so many points in the novel where I forgot Evelyn Hugo was entirely fiction – I would even find myself wanting to watch the movies Evelyn talks about in the novel, only to feel disappointed when I remembered the movies weren’t actually real! From the descriptions of her clothes, how she acts, the movies she worked on, and her relationships, it’s clear that Evelyn’s character was based on icons such as Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Munro.
The style of writing is so evocative of the time periods it moves through that you actually feel as if you’re within the action itself. This is a ridiculously difficult thing to achieve and Reid has moved up to being one of my favourite writers.
One of the things I most enjoyed was seeing how Reid tackled the concept of closetting in the entertainment industry. Closetting is a real thing and still happens today, however not everyone’s aware of it. As much as society has advanced in having queer movies and tv shows, there still seems to be this idea that being a queer actor or musician is career suicide. This is a concept which is fantastically explored in this novel.
Evelyn wanted to make it in Hollywood and be as big, if not bigger, than any of the male stars at the time. In order to achieve this, she married seven different men in the industry, was highly ruthless in her business dealings, and put her sexuality and heart on hold so her career could blossom. In the early days of meeting with Monique, Evelyn is asked who the love of her life was. Although Monique was clearly expecting her to pick one of her seven husbands, Evelyn doesn’t answer the question until they’re a good way into her story, revealing that the love of her life was a woman named Celia. It’s at this stage that the reader realises two things: it’s taken Evelyn up to the age of 79 to finally be able to come out as bisexual, and that it’s never too late to own your truth and to be proud of who you are:
“People think that intimacy is about sex. But intimacy is about truth. When you realize you can tell someone your truth, when you can show yourself to them, when you stand in front of them bare and their response is ‘you’re safe with me’- that’s intimacy.”
The conversations between Evelyn and Celia, and Evelyn and her best friend were often hard-hitting. They spoke about how society would never accept a queer star, and about the level of homophobia that seemed to infest every area of the entertainment industry. Every time Evelyn would bring up one of these topics, I would immediately think of present day examples of the same thing and it would infuriate me in the best way that, as much as the world has made some progress in queer rights, there are still so many areas that are lagging behind. Closetting shouldn’t still be a thing, and I feel this book does a great job of educating people that this is a very real thing and great injustice.
Another aspect of the book I loved was how it addressed the bi-phobia which is rife in the world. It’s not just homophobic people who are bi-phobic, but this also exists in the queer world too, with many people within the queer community regarding bisexuality as a stop gap on the journey to coming out as fully gay. This couldn’t be farther from the truth and a lot of education is currently underway, in books such as this and also in film and tv series, regarding the full spectrum of what sexuality actually is. One particular moment I feel Reid captures this is the following quote:
”There’s a difference between sexuality and sex. I used sex to get what I wanted. Sex is just an act. Sexuality is a sincere expression of desire and pleasure. That I always kept for Celia.”
Throughout the book, Evelyn faces bi-phobia and somehow always manages to confront it with grace and confidence, taking the time to explain it when the occasion arose, as can be seen in the following conversation between Evelyn and one of her husbands:
”Wow,” he said. “Incredible. I married a dyke.”
“Stop saying that,” I said.
“Evelyn, if you have sex with women, you are a lesbian. Don’t be a self-hating lesbian. That’s not… that’s not becoming.”
The issue with Celia was difficult to read but only because it happens so frequently, to be told that being bisexual means that you will never be fully satisfied with one gender or the other, flitting between the two searching greadily for satisfaction. Evelyn loved Celia but was unable to convey just how much when trying to hide their relationship behind her many (let’s face it, PR) marriages. Evelyn sums up the situation perfectly:
”I hated being called a lesbian. Not because I thought there was anything wrong with loving a woman, mind you. No, I’d come to terms with that a long time ago. But Celia only saw things in black and white. She liked women and only women. And I liked her. And so she often denied the rest of me.
As someone who identifies as bisexual, this book allowed me to feel seen. The way Reid talks about the constant barrage of opinion on being bisexual is so true to my own experience and I really felt myself lean into Evelyn’s character that little bit more. She’s not a likeable character all the time, quite often she’s harsh and cold and does what she has to in order to succeed. However, hearing her talk about her sexuality humanised her in a very real way for me. There was one moment in particular where Evelyn was explaining bisexuality isn’t about having an insatiable sexual appetite which really stuck with me:
”Being bisexual didn’t make me disloyal,” Evelyn says. “One has nothing to do with the other. Nor did it mean that Celia could only fulfil half my needs.”
This is something I have had to explain so many times throughout my life and it gets exhausting. Bisexuality isn’t a joke, nor is it greed or some kind of sexual deviency. There’s a lot of educating to be done in order for bi-phobia to finally die down, but I feel books such as this one go a long way to achieving that.