Los Angeles-based author Taylor Jenkins Reid has rocketed to popularity in the past few years, her recent novels a fixture among the New York Times Best Sellers.
Like many others, I enjoyed her very readable 2019 hit about a fictional 70s rock band, Daisy Jones and the Six, which next month will hit the small screen as a widely anticipated streaming miniseries, having been picked up by Reece Witherspoon’s production company Hello Sunshine.
Reading Daisy Jones prompted me to reach back into Jenkins Reid’s catalogue for another of her popular tales, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, published in 2017 (which, according to speculation, is also set to be adapted for the screen).
Often categorised as “historical romance”, this one is an easy holiday read – quite entertaining, although a little predictable and not terribly enlightening.
The titular protagonist is the fabulous yet flawed fictional iconic Hollywood bombshell Evelyn Hugo.
To get a sense of her – and the plot – think of a mash of real-life film stars Elizabeth Taylor, and her many marriages; Rita Hayworth, who changed her name and appearance to erase her Spanish heritage; and Ava Gardner, who sensationally revealed big secrets about her past to a biographer.
While it’s impossible to know what went on in the lives of these actresses behind the manipulated representations splashed across gossip pages, through Evelyn Hugo, Jenkins Reid gives her imaginative take, exploring how the myths created through celebrity culture are often very different from the truth.
The premise of the novel centres around the decision by 79-year-old Evelyn Hugo – who is widely revered as Hollywood royalty but has eluded the spotlight for years – to give an exclusive “tell-all” interview.
Much to the jealousy-fuelled shock of the celebrity press, the journalist Evelyn handpicks to cover her story is a young, little-known writer, Monique Grant. Monique, too, is dumbfounded but works up the courage to take on the job.
Here begins the two trains of intrigue – why did Evelyn choose Monique; and what dark secrets does Evelyn have to tell?
Over seven parts, each named for her seven husbands, the actress, described as “preternaturally beautiful, a paragon of glamour and daring sexuality”, reveals details (often sordid) to Monique of how she was used and used others as she climbed the ladder from her grim upbringing in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen in the 1940s to become the most famous woman on earth.
During numerous interviews at the star’s Manhattan apartment, the darkness of Evelyn’s gritty story, which includes many of the issues that Hollywood is still being taken to task for today, also tracks her quest to attain her true identity – one that is very different from the myth of her public persona, and which she went to extreme lengths to keep private.
Swept up in Evelyn’s mystique, but mostly in the steely way she manipulated people and situations to get ahead, the young journalist begins to apply some of those attributes in her own life, with success.
But as the story unfolds in all its lurid detail, the niggling sense at the outset that there is some grisly personal connection between Evelyn and Monique builds – until it’s exposed (a little predictably in my opinion) by the star in their final conversation.
All in all, it’s an entertaining read, with a ballsy protagonist telling a complicated life story – yet I found it a little lacking in nuance and subtlety.