Once a year it’s my turn to pick a book for my long-running book club. And every year, I choose a book about lesbians. Last time, it was The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. One of my book club friends’ grandma decided to read it also and was mildly scandalized by the fairly graphic sex scenes. This year I chose The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, mostly because lesbian Twitter called it dramatic adjectives like “gutting.”
My guts stayed firmly in place, but I did skip many hours of necessary sleep to keep reading, which is always a testament to the author. If you’re one of those folks who hasn’t yet read this book, it’s the story of film star Evelyn Hugo as she rises out of poverty to become one of the biggest names in Hollywood in the 50’s-70’s. And as the title suggests, she marries seven men along the way.
If you haven’t yet read this book but you might, I would suggest closing this window now, because I have some things to say. Spoilers are coming.
Here we go.
The narrator, reporter Monique Grant, and Evelyn Hugo herself both tell us that Evelyn is a complex person who, once we know more, we may actually hate for actions that we don’t yet know about. That’s built up so much throughout the book, while undercutting the assertion by showing us how deeply Evelyn cares for those close to her, that when the big reveal finally came I met the big bad thing she did with a bit of a shrug. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t good, and Monique would obviously have Strong Negative Feelings about it. But I expected something worse, like that she killed a man in cold blood. Instead, it felt as though the author couldn’t bear to actually make her protagonist unlikeable.
But let’s talk about Celia St. James. Evelyn’s longtime lover, she’s willfully naïve, judgmental, and when she gets angry, just plain mean. She insists that they should be able to come out as a couple, but she doesn’t actually seem to want that. Instead she wants Evelyn to want that and to pretend that they could still have a great life after the scandal and the destruction of their careers that would absolutely have ensued.
She breaks up with Evelyn the first time for sleeping with a man after agreeing to Evelyn’s plan to marry a rock star for one night as a cover, as though she hadn’t even thought of the possibility that a man would expect to have sex on the night of his elopement. Years later they reconcile and each marry gay men. At this point Evelyn is willing to go public with their relationship, but Celia decides that after all it’s not a good idea. Oh really, Celia? They’re together again for several years, and then she breaks up with Evelyn again because she’s hurt that Evelyn filmed a somewhat explicit sex scene without getting her permission first (sure, Evelyn does it before asking, then asks hoping to get a yes, and Celia says no, calling her bluff) but that’s a reason for a fight, not breaking up a years-long relationship immediately, running away to California, and divorcing your fake husband. But that’s Celia: dramatic and ready to call things off the moment she feels hurt.
When Celia gets mad, she hurls insults at Evelyn, who never retaliates. She tries to convince Evelyn that she doesn’t have talent, that people only like her for her body and her looks, which will fade. Evelyn has to flagellate herself in apology but Celia never bends. Overall, Celia is a very toxic girlfriend. I ended up hating her, not Evelyn. And Evelyn thinks she hung the moon. In the end, they get their happily ever after, though temporarily.
This might make it seem like I disliked the book, but no! I read it like a madwoman who really likes to read. And clearly it gave me enough opinions to write this long rant. Will I read it again? Probably not, but I will vociferously discuss it with anyone who has the misfortune to tell me that they also read this book. I cannot wait for book club.