In modern parlance, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo serves up the tea. But honeychild, it does not stop with tea, it continues on serving a twelve course meal, plus some bubbling hot, sugar-encrusted pie for dessert.
This is a tale of old Hollywood glamour, glistening and opulent on top yet filthy underneath. It illustrates to what lengths people will go for fame, fortune, and ultimately love- both to attain and then maintain all of the above.
The premise is interesting: a young writer given an unlikely and life-changing opportunity by a lofty celebrity who shouldn’t even know she exists. The star, Evelyn Hugo herself, uses a bit of deception to draw the writer into her orbit and makes a bargain to have her life story written. Of course there’s going to be more to it, some secret, some price to pay, but equally of course anyone would be out of their mind to reject the deal.
The strange thing is, you’re aware of this the entire time- that a dénouement is coming- which is only reinforced as Evelyn’s story begins to unfold and you realize she’s a social chess master, never doing a single thing without deeper and usually self-serving motivation. However, even when she states again and again that she’s done horrible things and the writer will not view her charitably in the end, this continually fades to the back of your mind. I’m usually the first one to doggedly sniff out any bit of mystery and try to solve the puzzle before the answer is revealed, but in this case I was pulled inexorably along by the strength of the storytelling.
The story is sweeping in its breadth, beginning in a time when young starlets were created and owned by production companies, a time when possibly even more so than now reputation and appearances were everything.
It’s hard not to compare Evelyn with Elizabeth Taylor, that similarly many-husbanded, diamond -bedecked enchantress. Some would say these ladies slept their way to the top, others would say they just used every tool available to them at the time. And certain revelations leave you pondering about the lives of some of your favorite stars. How much is really what it seems and how much is for show?
Here’s the thing: for a book ostensibly about Evelyn’s seven husbands, the truth is that the men barely matter at all. They’re mostly props and stepping stones, ultimately all vying to use Evelyn even as she turns the tables and uses them toward her own ends. They are far less interesting than the real heart of this story; the lifelong love affair between Evelyn Hugo and another actress, Celia St. James.
Begun at a time when you could literally be jailed or put into an insane asylum for being homosexual, their relationship was doomed to stay hidden. Though Evelyn was bisexual (a point of tense contention between the two ladies) none of the men in her life held a candle to the passion and deep connection she and Celia shared.
While reading the book, a famous old photograph kept coming to mind. It’s a shot of Sofia Loren and Jayne Mansfield at some sort of black-tie dinner, dripping with jewels, with impeccably suited waiters in the background. Jayne is smiling at the camera, but Sofia is caught giving a side-eyed glance at Jayne’s enormous breasts that seem to be scant millimeters from spilling forth from her dress onto the table.
This could easily be Evelyn and Celia, one dark and sultry, the other light as cotton candy and sunshine. This could easily be a moment when one woman was caught looking at her lover’s body, on display in public. Jealousy and slight disapproval mixed with lust and pride.
I’d argue that you have no soul if this novel doesn’t make you ache for these two women, if it doesn’t shed some light for you on the sheer ridiculous cruelty of anti-gay rhetoric. And they are no perfect martyrs for any cause, they are complex, flawed, bitchy and sometimes grasping. But scenes like the one that illustrates their inability to even publicly hold hands without fear of exposure should make you flinch.
Another recurring thought I had was a quote from Marilyn Monroe, also famous for the men she both did and did not marry. “Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul. I know, because I turned down the first offer often enough and held out for the fifty cents.”
This sums up Evelyn’s life and career, though I like to think she found some peace and illumination at the end.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid is available from Atria Books.