Sometimes the essence of an entire novel can be distilled from one line in the text. In the case of “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo,” it boils down to this:
This moment occurs early in the novel, before Evelyn has become a famous movie star or married any of her seven husbands. She’s a young teen, just developing into a gorgeous, voluptuous woman, and is confronting a clerk in a candy store who wants his way with her.
It’s a classic Faustian bargain, where Evelyn realizes the way to achieve fame and riches will be to sell her soul.
This novel was recommended to me by several people, even though they understood this is not the type of book I normally read. But I’m always trying to expand, experience what’s out there, and maybe find a new source of inspiration for my own writing.
Like a lot of fiction today, “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” was written by a woman (Taylor Jenkins Reid), about women, and for women. Nothing wrong with that—I’m as intrigued by women as anyone. I want to understand what makes women tick. I want to experience what women experience.
The setup is simple enough. Evelyn Hugo, now age 79, wants to tell the sordid truth about her life before she dies, and for a biographer, she chooses Monique, an unknown features writer from the haute magazine Vivant.
Monique can’t understand why she is the chosen one. She has no connection to the world-famous star. She has no real writing credentials. And writing such a book would make her a ton of money. So what’s going on?
The obvious answer is that Monique must be Evelyn’s secret daughter, but I know this can’t be true because that was my guess on about page ten of a 388-page book.
So the secret connection between them must be something else, and it is. Still, I can’t reveal it other than to say that nothing less than Monique being Evelyn’s daughter could ultimately deliver the same wow factor—or be as banal. So the author boxed herself into a corner a bit on this one.
As a character, Evelyn is fascinating and completely convincing as someone who rises from nothing to become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars ever in the 1960s and 1970s. She tells her story by recounting her life with each of her husbands, and the novel is full of scandal and packed with sordid and amusing details.
The pages turned easily, although I thought there were too many of them to turn. I get it: Evelyn lies, betrays, and manipulates again and again in the service of her own goals, yet we continue to root for her. But the novel began to feel like it was cycling through the same material. Maybe five husbands, not seven, would have been better.
Overall, this was a fine diversionary treat.
I do find it compelling when one line encapsulates the essence of an entire book. I suspect Taylor Jenkins Reid wasn’t conscious of that when she wrote “I could do it for free. Or I could do it for free candy.”
I’ve written such a line myself, with my upcoming novel, “The Culling.” It was only after I finished writing the novel that I recognized the line that tells it all: