Genre: Literary Fiction / Womans Fiction
Published: Atria Books, June 2017
My rating: 2/5 stars
CAUSE OF DEATH: overdosed on Hype
No no! Please put down that pitchfork… I’m sure we can talk about this like civilized people… Right…?
In all seriousness, I felt very torn on whether I actually wanted to write this review or not. I didn’t enjoy my time with this book at all, and frankly feel a little bad about having such an unpopular opinion.
That being said, I do have a lot to say on this novel, and once I started writing, this monsterlength thing came pouring out.
Before we get into it, two mandatory disclaimers:
1. These are my personal opinions; I don’t mean to offend or critique anyone who loved this. I recognize how this is a beloved book, I see why, and I am very happy that it has had such a positive impact on many people.
2. I’ve already mentioned: I’m personally not in a good space right now and I don’t rule out that this played a role in my enjoyment of the book. I’m still debating whether I should give this a second try at a later time (please let me know in the comments below if you think I absolutely should).
Spoilers incoming from this point on.
Story and Narrative
The story is probably familiar to all of you: old Hollywood icon from the fifties Evelyn Hugo offers her life story to girl-next-door-reporter Monique. An unfiltered account of her tumultuous career, personal life, and love life including her seven(!) marriages.
This should have been my first warning: it sounds like chicklit, which is not necessarily a genre I enjoy. It also sounded like a good environment for a clichéfest to me.
Three questions are posed right from the start:
1. Why has Evelyn decided to tell her story now?
2. Why to Monique?
3. Which of the seven husbands was Evelyns true love?
Going off the idea of clichéfest, I tried to answer them all at the beginning of the novel. These were my answers (before reading any of the story, apart from the synopsis).
1. She is dying, extra points if from cancer. Because no good dramatic book can resist a good cancer-plotline
2. Monique is her long-lost daughter for some convoluted reason
3. None of them. Evelyn is secretly gay, or somewhere else on the LGBTQ+ spectrum.
As you can tell, I scored 2/3, and was in the correct neighborhood on the third. So there is my first point of critique: predictability. There is so much you can do with this given premise, yet we went down the route that was literally the first to come up in my head.
A second problem is sort of inherent to the chosen narrative style: everything is told to the reader. Some of it repeatedly and blatantly, over and over. I get it Evelyn: you are sexually confident, have nice breast and you know it. Power to you: I’m all for female confidence but I don’t need you to tell me every second page…
This brings me to the characters, which again, I’m a little torn about. First and foremost: Evelyn. Ambitious, driven, at times selfish yet utterly charismatic, she is the star of her time and of this novel. At times she annoyed me with a kind of juvenile entitlement and naiveite, which I came to appreciate at the end, as it fits her character and backstory. She isn’t the most likable and full of flaws, yet this is also what makes her interesting enough to spend the majority of the novel with her.
The same could not be said for Monique. Monique could have been replaced with a card-board-cut-out of a journalist to which Evelyn had told her story, and not much would have changed. I understand she is supposed to be the grey-mousy-character to offset Evelyns extravagance but nobody is as bland and empty as is she is.
Then there were Evelyns love interests. Out of the seven husbands, Harry was the only memorable one. The rest of them have one “character-trait” and not much else. For example; Don is abusive. He hits Evelyn. I couldn’t tell you anything else about him. It’s not their fault for having no personality of development, as they have to share a 350page stage with 6 other husbands, giving them an average pagetime of under 50 pages.
Lastly there is Celia. My main problem with her was that I didn’t see the chemistry between her and Evelyn, other than them being teenage sweethearts. I would have loved to root for this couple, but I didn’t feel it unfortunately.
Seven husbands in 350 pages… That’s a lot… throw in a secret eighth lover, Cuban-woman-making-Hollywood-career plotline, a cancer-plotline, a daughter-with-cancer plotline, the Monique’s-dads-car-crash plotline… It’s just too much.
This novel read like a soap opera: too much happens in not enough pagetime. I realize this is someone’s life story, and a lot can and will happen in a lifetime, yet for a literary piece of work (or an actual memoir for that matter), you have to make choices. Spanning your scope wide as an ocean means you can only go deep as a puddle. If the novel had focused more in depth on either one or two of the above mentioned plotlines, it wouldn’t have felt so rushed and I would have probably enjoyed it a lot more.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo brings without a doubt some very important themes to the table. Feminism in the fifties, LGBTQ-acceptance, racism, a young girl being thrown into an oversexualized role in society, domestic abuse, alcoholism, career pressure, shame, guilt, end of life choices… Again; any one of which warrants a good book, but please don’t try to tackle them all at once. This lead to all of them being mentioned instead of explored which was just such a shame to me, as there is so much opportunity here for great discussion.
Lastly: I have to say that one of these themes wás well explored and the reason it wasn’t for me was probably entirely personal. This was the LGBTQ+-acceptance (in the fifties). If you have never read anything about this topic, this is seriously something I would recommend. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo does a great job of introducing you to this theme, and I can honestly say that I thought it was well done. The reason it didn’t do much for me is a personal one, and possibly a little political/controversial. I’m from the Netherlands, where LGBTQ-rights have been a big thing for a long time. Longer and more so (sorry Americans, I truly mean no offence) than in America. Books with themes like these were written in the seventies and eighties and caused a big uproar in The Netherlands then. Nowadays, some of them are on our mandatory-reading lists for Dutch literature, and are discussed at length at many highschools for years, as this is considered such an important theme. I was also raised among familymembers and friends who are very active in LGBTQ-rights movements, so this is not a new or controversial topic to me. For a book that was published in 2017, I can’t help but feel this was late to the party. Again; maybe this is cultural, maybe it’s personal; I’ve just seen all this before (in Dutch) It wasn’t a groundbreaker for me, but I want to end my review by saying: if it was to other people, I couldn’t be happier. It’s a topic that deserves attention sooner rather than later, and I’m truly happy that this novel did that for so many people.
I'm not sure... If I hadn't heared so much positive hype about it, I would probably not have been so disappointed. I might also never have picked it up, as the genre is not something I'm usually enjoy reading. In the end, this book just wasn't for me, regardless of the hype. I'd be lying however, if I said the hype didn't make my disappointment even bigger.
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