Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Audiobook Reviews: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

Title: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Narrators: Alma Cuervo, Julia Whelan, Robin Miles
Genre: Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Release Date: June 13, 2017

Evelyn Hugo, aging Hollywood icon, is finally ready to tell all about her life- her origins, her tempestuous career, and even more tempestuous personal life. The only catch: the only person she'll tell her story to is Monique Grant- a report whose life has rather stalled- marriage crumbling, career at a standstill. Monique has no idea why Evelyn would choose her, but Evelyn is insistent: she will tell her story to Monique, or take the secrets of her life to the grave. As Evelyn unfolds her story of ambition, forbidden love, friendship, and family; her story winds it's way to to the present- revealing a startling and tragic connection to Monique's own life.

Out of Ten: 8/10

Review at a Glance: Like the character in its title, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo offers no simple conclusions, instead presenting a complex picture with themes of ambition, love, intimacy, and identity.

Review: To say that I enjoyed experiencing this book would be the wrong word, although I do think it's a pretty excellent novel. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is, I think, one of the saddest books I've ever read (or listened to, as the case may be). It isn't that nothing but incredibly tragic things happen (although sad things do happen, quite often, in the course of Evelyn's life). There was just a sense of subtle sadness that seemed to permeate most every moment of the story, even as Evelyn recounted the happy memories. This review is going to wind up being heavily focused on Evelyn because- fittingly, I suppose, she was by far the most interesting part of the novel. Monique was more kind of... framing? Not an uninteresting character, but not terribly compelling when compared to the 300-page long study we get on Evelyn.

That was the overall sense that I took away from it. I really admired the deconstruction of Evelyn Hugo, the slow revelation of this larger-than-life person as someone all too human. While Evelyn isn't really a character that I found myself liking (nor was Monique, for that matter, nor were many of the people we met in Evelyn's memories), I still found myself sympathizing with and respecting her. In many ways the way Evelyn's mind works is utterly foreign to me- her goals, decisions, and approach were all so incredibly opposite what mine that this was something of a feat of writing. In this Taylor Jenkins Reid succeeded, because I remained intrigued and sympathetic toward Evelyn, without really becoming fond of her.

As Evelyn recounts how she fought her way to the glamourous and scandal-filled life she was known for, and how that life led her to be living alone in an Upper East Side apartment with an assistant and her iconic gowns for company (gowns that were being auctioned off to charity), we are introduced to a cast of the incredibly flawed people that played a role in Evelyn's life. The vibrancy and true-ness of so many of the characters in Evelyn's life was impressive, and I found it clashing with our visits to Monique's life, which sometimes lacked that same sense of authenticity (somewhat ironically, given the amount of faking involved in Evelyn's life). I usually try to avoid spoilers, and I'm not entirely sure this is one, but I want to quickly talk about something that isn't revealed until 1/3 of the way into the book. I don't think knowing going in takes away from the reading experience, but for anyone who prefers not to know anything going in, skip past the text in the grey box... I played with not including it, but the review just didn't feel complete without it.

I debated talking about this in the review, given how late it's introduced, it could, I suppose, be seen as a plot twist. I knew going into this story that Evelyn was a queer woman- it was the reason that I picked up the book. To me, it wasn't so much a plot point as an essential component of who the very complicated Evelyn was, and integral to the themes of the novel. I appreciated the exploration of the facets of Evelyn's sexuality, especially over the decades as terminology evolved and she came to know herself better. It serves to shape Evelyn as a character, as well as revealing and highlighting parts of her character. While I didn't agree with a lot of the choices Evelyn made (regarding her relationships, her relationship with her own sexuality, or a lot of other aspects of her life) they were believable and I could see why she made them.

It's worth noting that, as I've mentioned, this book is in some ways profoundly sad, and some of the sadness and difficulty in Evelyn's life did come the fact that the great love of her life was a woman in a time and place where she couldn't safely be open about it. But it is equally clear that many of the greatest joys in Evelyn's life came from loving Celia. From the somewhat unconventional family she built with Celia, and Harry (a gay man) and his partner, and from being able to be open with at very least some of the people she loved. Evelyn's bisexuality- like her gender, like her ethnicity, like her upbringing; all act as essential components of her character, both shaping and driving home the main themes of the story. 

Evelyn is an incredibly complicated character, and overall struck me as someone alternately stifled by, taking advantage of, and struggling against society She doesn't always make the best choices. She's ruthless and ambitious and selfish at times, but also brave and subversive. We see her use her femininity to get what she wants, while struggling not to let herself be purely defined by it (in both her own eyes and those of others). She alternately- or sometimes simultaneously- takes advantage of and rails against her own objectification. She keeps secret large parts of her identity, wishing not to, but not willing to give up what having those parts of herself out in the open would take from her. Depending on the situation, she throws herself against the bars of her cage and decorates the walls. Neither of those things ever really feel like freedom, which contributed to the slightly-to-very (depending on the part) sad tone of much of the story. Even the happiest, freest moments of the book were shaded with sadness, with Evelyn's grief and guilt.

I really liked the complexity of the relationships in this book- Evelyn and Celia, Evelyn and Harry, Evelyn and her husbands (and the different reasons she took them), Evelyn and her daughter, Evelyn and Monique, Monique and her mother and father. Reid plays with dichotomies and competing concepts and overlapping concepts in this book: love and hate, sex and intimacy, being looked at and being seen,the idea of belonging with someone and the idea of belonging to someone, past and present, truth and falsehood, right and wrong; playing all of these ideas with and against each other against the backdrop of Evelyn and Monique's lives. Relationships and situations are mirrored with each other throughout the book.

As I mentioned, Evelyn and her story rang more true and felt more developed that Monique's did. Monique served more as framing and felt somewhat flat when compared to the vivid characterization seen with Evelyn- either because she just didn't get as much time to be seen, or because Evelyn already had so much story to her. The narrators were excellent, reasonably distinct and yet blending together well, not interrupting the listening experience with each switch. I can't say I'll be thinking about this book forever, but I've definitely been thinking about it for the past two days.

Ultimately is a well-written and complex and meaningful story that explores identity, ambition, choice, and what is really worth taking risks for. I really appreciate that I was able to experience this story- I'm just not sure I'll ever want to do so again.

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