In its own way, a near-great novel is just as frustrating to read as a bad one, if not more so. The false notes don’t bother you at a middle-school orchestra performance as much as they would at the Philharmonic. Taylor Jenkins Reid does so much so well in The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo that it feels improper to focus so much on the parts I didn’t like, but unfortunately in my case those parts are the ones that stick in my mind so much that they can’t be ignored.
The title character is a legendary Hollywood star who has come out of seclusion and agreed to a magazine profile with one odd condition. She chooses a relatively anonymous writer to tell her story. Monique Grant is just as perplexed as her boss but is eager to prove herself. Over the course of many day-long sessions Evelyn pours out her story to Monique, including many stunning revelations about her much-talked-about personal life and eventually revealing her reasons for plucking Monique out of obscurity.
Taylor Jenkins Reid has created a sort of alternate-history version of Hollywood history, somewhat adjacent but largely distinct from the version we’re familiar with from TCM and the like. Hugo and the other major characters are all fictitious (though Hugo seems to be inspired by Rita Hayworth and Elizabeth Taylor) but occasionally a real person like John Wayne will be name-checked. It happens to infrequently as to be quite jarring and I wish Reid had avoided doing so. The other problem I had was with the timeline. Evelyn’s mover career stretches from the mid-50s through the early-80s, but Reid’s descriptions of her early career really seem more suited to the classic studio system of the 1930s. It’s perhaps a subtle distinction but I think I’m on fairly solid ground here.
The novel is shaped by two major revelations Evelyn makes to Monique, one of which comes early and one which comes very near to the end. Without spoiling either I will say that I had some quibbles with the way each of them were dealt with. The first is a fascinating idea that makes Hugo’s biography more intriguing, but it also leads to some stilted, awkward conversations between Evelyn and Monique in which you can see Reid’s heavy hand as she tries to navigate social issues. The second revelation is more problematic from a narrative standpoint. Reid struggles to adequately depict the impact this new knowledge has on the relationship between the two characters. Reid also takes the coward’s way out at a crucial moment, refusing to have her character make a decision.
For as much time as I’ve spent pointing out flaws, I should say that I really enjoyed reading the book. It flows easily and is certainly entertaining. Reid deserves credit for building such a convincing world around her characters. It’s just that seeing how well she did some of the hard stuff makes it more disappointing that she couldn’t quite stick the landing.