What Keeps Me Calm: Reading—and Re-reading—'The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo'
“Evelyn Hugo had me enamored and intrigued in ways a true Hollywood actress should and would . . . I would literally give up my soul to just experience this book for the first time again, truly.”
Welcome back to What Keeps Me Calm, essays each week on the television shows, movies, books, music, and other works of media that, especially on the darkest of days, are a balm to our sad, weary souls.
You know how sometimes certain things just find you at the right time? That’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo for me. At a time that we have been easing back into “normal life” and things err on the hectic side, this particular Taylor Jenkins Reid masterpiece had found me, and then left me (a little bit in tears, I’ll admit) a changed woman. I kid not.
Like many others who picked up the book, I had been intrigued with how popular it was on social media. I know, so basic. But it is true. Despite having been feeling so frazzled, so busy, I finally picked it up in April at Fully Booked during one trip to the mall and I’ve read it thrice over since. Addictive, glamorous, a perfect escape—The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is quite literally the single book that got me to enjoy reading again.
In the two years of lockdown, subconsciously or not, I had begun to reach for books that “optimized” my time and energy; always choosing something that would help me show up better in every area of my life. This brought on a slew of self help, personal development, management, and even finance books to my shelves—both digital and physical. I probably devoured two to three self-help books a month. This was great and everything, after all, who doesn’t want to be a better version of themselves? However, reading with only this purpose started to wear me out… and picking up a book began feeling like a chore.
At the end of 2021, maybe even early 2022, a lightbulb went off: I had noticed that I had gotten a bit addicted to the idea of being the best version of myself and had not gotten much of anywhere. The reading I had been doing aimed to increase productivity, manage time, bio-hack my health (woohoo!) and the list goes on… all of that became entertainment and well, I just wasn’t being entertained… not anymore.
I vowed right then and there to read more fiction. The question had just been, what novel to pick up? I didn’t want something that may be a difficult read, preferring something that instead held promise to be more of a surefire hit—maybe something that would be adapted into a movie or tv series soon? And onto the Google search bar I went, as well as BookTube (YouTube) and BookTok (TikTok). I had read five books of fiction since my New Year’s Resolution slash promise to myself (at a glorious rate of one fiction title a month) but nothing really left me with an obvious shift towards reading again… not until The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo came into the picture. Let's finally get to the plot. While the back cover cannot do justice to providing even a peek into how wonderful a read this is, it does describe the plot succinctly. So I will share it here:
Reclusive Hollywood icon Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. But when she chooses unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant to write her story, no one is more astounded than Monique herself. Determined to use this opportunity to jump-start her career, Monique listens in fascination. From making her way to Los Angeles in the 1950s to leaving show business in the ‘80–and, of course–the seven husbands along the way–Evelyn unspools a tale of ruthless ambition, unexpected friendship, and a great forbidden love. But as Evelyn’s story nears its own conclusion, it becomes clear that her life intersects with Monique’s own in tragic and irreversible ways.
The novel had me hooked. I had practically inhaled it, finishing in just two days on my first read. (I did want it to last longer. Alas, I just could not keep away from it.) The writing was good enough, and I did enjoy the format in which the story was told: an interview, a candid conversation between a writer and an icon. But let me tell you, the story Reid had woven together so neatly and the characters she so craftily built? Just exquisite, wildly addictive. I would literally give up my soul to just experience this book for the first time again… truly.
It goes without saying, as I think everyone should read this book, that this particular write-up will limit spoilers. But I will get into just a few… so, if you haven’t read this one yet, I’m telling you to stop reading here. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Still here? Great. Well, looking back on The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and thinking of the things I loved most about it… I think the core thing I loved was the fact it showed a woman who, despite adversity, made a way and name for herself. Additionally, I fell in love with it because it tackled two major themes throughout its pages: found family, and different kinds of love and soulmates.
As I mentioned earlier, the format of the book is through Hugo telling her life story, “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” to Monique Grant, a struggling writer who works at Vivant magazine but is now being tasked to write the Hollywood icon’s biography. What a jump. I think, because I am a magazine editor and writer myself, this premise just got me, hook line and sinker. With every turn of a page, I learned life lessons and took advice from Hugo herself, alongside Monique, and through reading–no, experiencing–this book, I had rekindled a love for fiction and reading for the sheer joy and pleasure of it.
So many times, I’d have to pause reading, to underline or write a line that struck me. One such line, just moments into Hugo and Grant’s conversation, was this: “So do yourself a favor and learn to grab life by the balls, dear. Don’t be so tied up trying to do the right thing when the smart thing is so painfully clear.” There she goes, Evelyn Hugo already serving major life advice just 30 pages in.
On taking back your power and becoming the captain of the ship that is life, Evelyn emphatically shares: "When you’re given an opportunity to change your life, be ready to do whatever it takes to make it happen. The world doesn’t give things, you take things. If you learn one thing from me, it should probably be that.” Ultimately, your life is what you make of it. Believe in the power that is inherently you. Evelyn Hugo lived her life, every single moment if it, and created it for herself. She owned up to the decisions she made, both good and bad, and ultimately regrets nothing. (Well, almost nothing. She does touch on how she wished she realized that it was the people in her life that was worth protecting. It was never the fame or the wealth, but the people.)
Evelyn Hugo had me enamored and intrigued in ways a true Hollywood actress should and would, she had me in the palm of her hand by the time she was having chopped salad with Monique in a restaurant down the street from her Upper East Side apartment. As she spoke about losing her mother at a young age, running away from her abusive father and Hell’s Kitchen, to making it in the City of Angels and falling in love with Hollywood’s golden boy, then falling out of love, and then, amidst her world falling apart, falling in love with her then co-star—a particularly beautiful actress named Celia St. James—Evelyn came to life in the words in front of me. Through telling her life through highlights and milestones of her career, and the husbands she married along the way, of course, Evelyn painted a picture of what it meant to be a bisexual woman who experienced many loves in her very eventful life.
Reid, through Evelyn, trained a light on bisexuality in a way I have only just encountered within the pages of this book: it is neither half something, or missing another. Evelyn ultimately spoke about what it means to love another (male or female) and, through her stories, showed us so many kinds and levels of love. Her love with Celia, was passionate and affectionate, like their souls had just “clicked” and fit together. Inseparable, magnetic. It felt like home. Her love with best friend, Harry Cameron, on the other hand, was a perfect example of unconditional love. They just had each other’s backs and supported each other through so many seasons of life… and loved each other, “true blue” and no questions asked.
As you could probably guess, my two favorite characters are Evelyn Hugo, of course, and Harry Cameron, a.k.a the best father and life partner, ever. To be honest, at times, I had preferred the love between Hugo and Cameron to hers with Celia… because it was so steady, so reliable, it was always there, unconditionally. I am not here to discount her love with Celia which by all means was beautiful and well-told. I don’t want to spoil too much, but let’s just say, that Celia is Evelyn’s great love… and every time she had lost her (there are several times, as it is Old Hollywood, after all), broke me, too. The love was volatile, and in some ways, Celia also does fail to see Evelyn as she was. Not Harry, though.
On her love with Harry, Evelyn said: “‘It was around that time that I started to believe that friendships could be written in the stars. “If there are all different types of soul mates,’ I told Harry one afternoon, when the two of us were sitting out on the patio with Connor, ‘then you are one of mine.’”
When these conversations with Monique are happening, Evelyn is at the tail end of her life, 79 years old, still stunning, still larger-than-life, having lived life to its fullest. She has done great things, some terrible things, too… and you can’t help but realize just how human she is. She has lost everyone she has loved and fiercely protected… and tells her story, no holds barred, and attempts to make amends and make things right on one jaw dropping thing. This, I cannot spoil.
The major twist of this novel has me in a puddle of emotions, swimming in mixed feelings, and provided a major moment to get lost in. Just absolutely wowed me. And even now, as I know how the story of Evelyn Hugo pans out, I have since “consumed” this book maybe five times over, counting all the ways and formats I so enjoy it. No other piece of fiction in recent years had felt so easy to get lost into, or had left me wanting to reach for to reread, as this one. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo just became the book that got me out of *that* reading slump and made me fall back in love with fiction.
So, a “thank you very much” is in order to the great and beautiful Evelyn Hugo, as well as to the world that Reid had so wonderfully crafted to escape into, giving me a piece of literature that just gave me life. Evelyn and Reid are both rockstars, both fantastic; I truly appreciate every single moment spent with it, including all the big ideas and lessons I learned along the way. Truly, a work of fiction has never impacted my perspective and served me as much as The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo in a long time; for that, I will be forever grateful.
What Keeps Me Calm comes out on Mondays.
Lead photo from Goodreads