Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1000
Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is a phenomenally successful novel in terms of critical acclaim and popularity amongst readers. While the novel’s title places Evelyn’s numerous marriages front and center, Reid’s epigraph encourages her daughter Lilah to “Smash the patriarchy, sweetheart” and in the acknowledgments that follow the novel, she says Evelyn would tell Lilah to “grab what you want out of this world with both hands.”
These comments suggest that Reid sees Evelyn, and perhaps Monique Grant, as well, as, in their own ways, “smashing the patriarchy.” Reid seems to admire Evelyn’s ambition and uncompromising pursuit of her goals despite Evelyn’s fictional interviewer, Monique, coming away with more mixed feelings.
Evelyn’s story is framed by Monique, a writer in her thirties looking for a career boost, interviewing Evelyn Hugo, “film legend and ‘60s It Girl,” who is now nearly eighty years old and has not given an interview “in multiple decades.” Within that framework, Evelyn recalls her desperation to flee an abusive single-parent household in Hell’s Kitchen and her drive to build a name for herself in Hollywood.
She quickly disposes of her first husband, Ernie, to marry “Hollywood royalty” Don Adler, which raises her profile and her starring roles opposite her new husband. During her abusive marriage, though, Evelyn falls in love with co-star Celia St. James, and they begin a lifelong, though off-and-on, and mostly closeted, relationship.
When tabloids start rumors about the actresses being more than friends, Evelyn marries singer Mick Riva and quickly annuls the marriage to distract the press. Because she also slept with Mick, though, Evelyn loses Celia for several years.
Her fourth marriage is also strategic but involves no sexual relations. Evelyn marries her Anna Karenina co-star Rex North to motivate audiences to see the film. Once he is ready to leave their union for true love, they stage affairs, and Evelyn marries Harry Cameron, her best friend and collaborator. Harry is a gay man who is in love with John Braverman, Celia’s new husband. The couples can live together without raising suspicions, so their newfound family enters a period of harmony.
Evelyn and Harry, with Celia’s permission, agree to conceive a child together – their daughter, Connor – and all four adults help raise the girl until Evelyn again drives Celia away. This time, she agrees to shoot an explicit scene with Don without discussing it with Celia first.
Evelyn thinks she can find love again with director Max Girard, a longtime collaborator, and they marry soon after both win Oscars for All of Us and Evelyn divorces Harry. Max’s romantic fascination with Evelyn is short-lived, and she still loves Celia. The actresses reunite after exchanging a series of letters in which each owns up to her mistakes in their relationship. With Celia’s COPD diagnosis and limited lifespan, Evelyn quits acting to spend her time with her true love.
Evelyn and Celia want to move to Spain, but Harry doesn’t want to give up a new relationship that he believes could become serious. Before they decide on their family’s future, Harry dies in a drunk driving accident along with his new partner, James Grant, Monique’s father.
Evelyn moves James’s body into the driver’s seat so that Harry would not face legal repercussions if he were to live. Evelyn reveals the entire story to Monique, assuming she will want to know the truth so she can pass on a letter James wrote to Harry in which he describes his love for Monique.
Evelyn mourns Harry’s death intensely...
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but can heal because she still has Connor and Celia. Before moving to Aldiz with Celia, Evelyn marries one last time; her seventh husband is Robert Jamison, brother of Celia, and their legal union makes Evelyn and Celia’s relationship, and, after her death, Celia’s inheritance, much simpler. In their final years together, Evelyn and Celia move past their previous conflicts and marry, albeit unofficially.
After Celia’s death in 2000, Evelyn becomes a self-proclaimed “boring old lady” and focuses all her energy on Connor. However, Connor is diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer in her early forties, and Evelyn nurses her child through illness and chemotherapy.
Seeing Connor’s pain persuades Evelyn that when she is diagnosed with the same cancer, she will end her life on her terms rather than suffer as Connor did. While she does not state this outright to Monique, the latter realizes after she leaves Evelyn’s apartment for the last time that she was “saying good-bye.” She had hinted at her intentions by praising Monique’s acclaimed “right-to-die” article.
Though Monique struggles with her feelings toward Evelyn after learning the truth of James Grant’s death, it’s evident in the final piece of the novel, “Evelyn and Me,” a preface to Monique’s article in Vivant, that she will respect Evelyn’s wishes in her biography.
Monique both expresses the complexity of Evelyn – not painting her as all good, but depicting her with all her contradictions, as Evelyn wanted – and highlights the parts of Evelyn’s story that she knows the actress most hoped to reveal to the public after so many years of secrecy. These are specifically her identity as a bisexual woman and her lifelong love for Celia St. James.
In this prefatory article, Monique quotes Evelyn as saying that the men she married were “just husbands. I am Evelyn Hugo.” In “quintessential Evelyn” fashion, the star turns around the public perception of her, which sometimes allowed her exceptional number of marriages to overshadow her acting accomplishments and certainly masked the truth of her personal life to her advantage.
There are seven husbands and only one Evelyn. In the title of Reid’s novel, which is also the title of Monique’s biography of Evelyn, they are always defined in relation to Evelyn herself. Evelyn is at the center, just as she always strove to be.