Review: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid UK hardback book cover

I actually ended up with this book by accident. I’d ordered The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, and it was only when I picked it up to look at the creepy-mystery-endpapers that I realised that I’d been sent the wrong book. Did I get in a huff and send it back? Uhh, no. I put this book on my shelf (which, in my defence, I had wanted to buy anyway) and skipped out and bought a further, proper copy of Seven Deaths. Which is brilliant and you should definitely read, by the way.

I have to say, however,  that it turned out to be a fairly fortunate accident as The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is also, actually, pretty great.

Plot summary: Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. But when she chooses unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant for the job, no one in the journalism community is more astounded than Monique herself. Why her? Why now?

Monique is not exactly on top of the world. Her husband, David, has left her, and her career has stagnated. Regardless of why Evelyn has chosen her to write her biography, Monique is determined to use this opportunity to jumpstart her career.

Summoned to Evelyn’s Upper East Side apartment, Monique listens as Evelyn unfurls her story: from making her way to Los Angeles in the 1950s to her decision to leave show business in the late 80s, and, of course, the seven husbands along the way. As Evelyn’s life unfolds through the decades—revealing a ruthless ambition, an unexpected friendship, and a great forbidden love—Monique begins to feel a very a real connection to the actress. But as Evelyn’s story catches up with the present, it becomes clear that her life intersects with Monique’s own in tragic and irreversible ways.

“I am under no obligation to make sense to you,” Evelyn said.

I struggled with this book for the first chapter or so, as it starts out as fairly generic chick lit that’s been thwacked with the diversity sledgehammer. Monique’s husband has left after less than a year of marriage, her career is stagnant and she’s a little bit lost in her life. Then the famous Evelyn Hugo requests that Monique (and only Monique)  write her tell-all biography, and Monique’s life is turned around.

Monique. Necessary but uninteresting.

I could not have cared less about Monique. Don’t get me wrong, I understand her purpose. The story wouldn’t have had the same punch to it if it wasn’t mostly narrated by an elderly lady looking back on her life, and the fact that it was being told to an autobiographer with a life and opinions of her own really worked. The overarching premise just fits the aged 50s starlet concept. But I didn’t care. Those parts never really stop feeling like chick-lit. It doesn’t help than Monique has a very bitter attitude that really starts to grate after a while – she’s just sulky. And when she stops being sulky, she’s entitled.

Luckily, we don’t stay with her for long. She pops up every now and again as Evelyn’s narration gives her some perspective on her own life, but then we get back to the real story.

Evelyn, however? Fascinating.

“I guess I don’t take divorce as lightly as you,” I say. It comes out flatly. I consider softening, but… I don’t. (bloody Monique).
“No, of course not,” Evelyn says kindly. “If you did, at your age, you’d be a cynic.”

“But at your age?” I ask.
“With my experience? A realist.”
“That, in and of itself, is awfully cynical, don’t you think? Divorce is loss.”
Evelyn shakes her head. “Heartbreak is loss. Divorce is a piece of paper.”

“If you are heartbroken right now, then I feel for you deeply,” Evelyn says. “That I have the utmost respect for. That’s the sort of thing that can split a person in two. But I wasn’t heartbroken when Don left me. I simply felt like my marriage had failed. And those are very different things.”

When Evelyn’s story gets going… frankly, it’s just wonderful. Picture the true, unabridged story of somebody like Audrey Hepburn, if she’d been married seven times with a secret life of heartbreak and scandal. It’s glamorous, gritty and riveting.

I love Evelyn Hardcastle. I love everything about her, even that the fact that she unfathomably looks like Mary Berry in my head.

She purposefully states that she wants to tell her whole story, no holds barred, free for people to judge critically. She warns that she has done some deeds she’s not particularly proud of, which may make her unlikeable in some eyes. It’s true – she’s not a saint, and she has some distinct flaws. But I love her. She’s very nuanced, even in her ‘own’ telling and it’s hard to come out of the novel not liking her.

I wish she was real so I could read her actual biography.

Another 200 pages wouldn’t go amiss.

“Do you think I’m a whore?”
Harry pulled over to the side of the road and turned to me. “I think you’re brilliant. I think you’re tough. And I think the word whore is something ignorant people throw around when they have nothing else.

“Isn’t it awfully convenient,” Harry added, “that when men make the rules, the one thing that’s looked down on the most is the one thing that would bear them the greatest threat? Imagine if every single woman on the planet wanted something in exchange when she gave up her body. You’d all be ruling the place. An armed populace. Only men like me would stand a chance against you. And that’s the last thing those assholes want, a world run by people like you and me.”

To say that this is a novel about a woman who got married seven times, it’s surprising that it doesn’t get repetitive at all. Each husband has a different personality and each marriage has different circumstances, and I was absolutely and definitely interested in every single one. I do wish that the story occasionally went into a bit more depth though. It’s 382 pages long but I think it could easily have been expanded to give us some more detail. It seems to fly past and I’d have loved to read more, although I suppose that’s just a marker of how much I enjoyed it.

There’s one colossal twist that’s revealed reasonably early on and I absolutely did not see it coming. It’s honestly a wonderful idea and it’s written so beautifully. It’s subtle and not at all sledge-hammery, and also quite believable for the time period.

In the end, we find out exactly why Evelyn chose Monique to write her autobiography. There are two reasons, both of which I’d predicted shortly after the start of the book. That’s fine though – it didn’t spoil my enjoyment as I was more focused on Evelyn’s narrative. It’s more a character-driven work anyway. The ending is… fitting. Again, I’d forseen it, but I was wholly on board with it.

It’s the best book I accidentally bought that I’ve ever read.

I’ve seen reviews that comment that this book reads like chick-lit. It doesn’t; not at all. Monique’s parts do, I suppose, but we’ve dealt with that already. The ‘real’ parts of the novel are fascinating and really drew me in to the topsy-turvy life of this woman in the glamorous 1950s.

I was glued to this book when I was reading it. And when I wasn’t reading it, I wanted to be. It’s unique and fascinating, and I’ve been thinking about it for days now.

Visit Taylor Jenkins Reid’s website here, or find her on Twitter.

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