Search
Close this search box.

The Price of Fame is Infamy

An ardent love affair concealed behind the auspices of multiple marriages preserves the allure of a bygone era

Glamourous hollywood era image
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo book cover

Title

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

Author(s)

Taylor Jenkins Reid

Genre

Historical Fiction | LGBTQIA+ | Women’s Fiction

In The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Evelyn Hugo, the fictional version of a quintessential Golden-Age-of-Hollywood icon, lived a seemingly glamorous life inside the gilded cage of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s making. 

After enduring seven husbands and the death of her beloved daughter from breast cancer, 79-year-old movie star Evelyn Hugo wishes to reveal the truth to the world. What truth, you ask? The truth about everyone, including her biographer. This opening had me hooked. I spent the next six days gripping the polypropylene laminate-covered library book so tightly that it nearly melted in my feverish hands.

Evelyn seeks out Monique Grant, a seemingly obscure New York City journalist, to pen her authorized tell-all. She entices Monique with the promise that her story will be a multimillion-dollar bestseller. But there’s one caveat: Monique must wait until Evelyn dies to publish the biography. The problem is that Monique Grant is no biographer.

Evelyn looks at me with purpose. “Do you understand what I’m telling you? When you’re given an opportunity to change your life, be ready to do whatever it takes to make it happen. The world doesn’t give things, you take things. If you learn one thing from me, it should probably be that.”

Monique tries to set aside her less-than-ideal circumstances—her husband of less than a year has just moved to San Francisco for a promotion—to focus on the mealy center of Evelyn’s life. As she sits with Evelyn in her swanky Fifth Avenue apartment, recording the secrets of her life, Monique grows wary of Evelyn’s underlying motives.

Modeled after starlets such as Rita Hayworth, Elizabeth Taylor, and Ava Gardner, Evelyn Hugo’s vivacious on-screen presence captivates fans near and far. She uses her substantial attributes to manipulate connected, powerful men to gain stardom.

As Evelyn peels away at the gambit of her fame, she unveils her passionate and tumultuous 20-year relationship with her former co-star Celia St. James. As Evelyn bares her soul to Monique, it becomes clear that “Evelyn Hugo doesn’t care if everyone forgets she was ever alive.” And Monique discovers a perplexing connection to her subject she can’t avoid. 

Through a combination of tabloid gossip clippings and first-person narration, Monique and Evelyn engross us in the most enduring masquerade of all time: Golden-Age Hollywood’s underground Queer society, a time in which it was impossible to be out and successful. Today’s proliferation of celebrity-tell alls reveal just how tirelessly the Tinseltown jet set toiled to keep their proclivities safely behind the curtains.

Contemporary actors  Elliot Page, Ben Whishaw, Anna Paquin, Ariana DeBose, Justice Smith, and Kate McKinnon have been lauded for disclosing their queer identities. Their 20th-century counterparts, however, would not have been so warmly celebrated. Although Marlene Dietrich’s bisexuality was well known to her sewing circle, and Greta Garbo’s affairs with women were “exciting secrets,” life outside the celluloid closet was a charade of double dates and private pajama parties. Rock Hudson’s cause of death was only shocking because he hid his sexual orientation. Had he revealed his AIDS diagnosis, he would have been crucified in Hollywood. 

Adored for her multifaceted talent, Jodie Foster, who was openly sapphic in her tinsel circle, was reluctant to officially come out during her Cecil B DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech at the 2013 Golden Globes. Bewildered about the need to make it official, she stood before her colleagues, beautifully gowned, and jokingly apologized for not having a press conference, a fragrance, and a reality show to launch her coming out. But gays need representation! And to usher in that representation, we need visibility. Today, we see better representation of queer people on small and big screens globally—facilitating a larger swath of queer actors for these roles. While privacy should be respected, visibility keeps us aware.

However, during an era when visibility meant no work or––worse––imprisonment, no one can blame a fictional Hollywood bombshell for protecting her career by camouflaging her bisexuality with a litany of phony weddings. 

Reid’s usage of clever hooks as lead-ins to each chapter is ingenious. A historical novelist, Reid keeps us riveted until the end, when she conveys the most egregious plot twist yet. Despite the novel’s harrowing themes, at its core, it’s about the family Evelyn Hugo creates for herself and what she’d do to protect it. It’s a reminder of the prevailing complexities of being a queer actor in Hollywood—then and today.

But are these stories—tales of closeted queer people that put us at odds with the present—doing us a disservice as a community? Wouldn’t a modern queer love affair unfolding in the open be better? It’s Reid’s fifth novel and first bestseller, selling more than two million copies globally. But why? For one, it’s the juxtaposition of a golden era, a time when everything was superficially pristine, with the image of a couple grappling with the secrecy of their love affair. In other words, it entertains. Second, since it was written by a proven mainstream author with significant publishing company backing, the novel can be marketed to a broader audience. With more awareness of the novel, more people will buy and read it. LGBTQ+ authors who write modern queer-appealing storylines and publish with smaller, LGBTQ+-driven boutique publishers don’t have the same reach. 

So, the question still remains: are such stories good for our communities? Yes. They remind us of how society once viewed queer people, how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go. In the same way, as a society, we should be reading more stories about injustices across society to understand what we’re up against.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is a beautifully written, timeless love story with deep emotions, tragedy, and elegance. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. When I finished the book, at last, I missed Evelyn Hugo. It’s her brazen bravado, her do-what-it-takes-to-get-what-you-want perseverance, and her vulnerability that I miss the most. And isn’t that the measure of an excellent story and its author?

Follow my bookstagram.

Support independent booksellers and your local library.

About the author(s).

Taylor Jenkins Reid is the New York Times Bestselling author of the novels Carrie Soto Is Back, Malibu Rising, Daisy Jones and The Six and One True Loves, Maybe in Another Life, After I Do, and Forever, Interrupted. Reese’s Book Club, Read with Jenna, Indie Next, Best of Amazon, and Book of the Month have recommended her books. Her 2019 bestselling novel, Daisy Jones and The Six, inspired by the rise and fall of Fleetwood Mac, is now a limited series on Amazon Prime. She lives in Los Angeles.

More reviews