The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid is the book that made me swear off heterosexual-centric literature forever (I’m barely kidding, I think so many potential relationship arcs have been squandered by authors who couldn’t look past gender).
In this novel, a journalist named Monique gets the chance to interview the elusive 79-year-old Evelyn Hugo on her life’s mysteries— most importantly, the cause of her seven husbands. Though Monique is technically the protagonist, the story centers around Evelyn, told largely through the interview tapes Monique collects.
Morally grey Evelyn
In the beginning of her life, Evelyn Hugo was morally grey without sacrificing too much of her goodness. A lot of her wrongdoings were simply tit for tat. A man much too old for her takes her as his bride, she uses him to launch her career as a movie star. 17-year-old Evelyn entertains a man known for sleeping with underage girls, she gets a part in a project she’s been dying to work on.
Even more, these slips of morality are not equivalent to the perverseness that Evelyn was subjected to her entire life. From the age of 13, Evelyn knew her body was an object. And if she had to be an object, why not be currency? She traded her body instead of letting it be taken.
As Evelyn grew older, she secured herself a firm position in the film industry, forging a career that often required her to forgo love and relationships in its favor. So much is obvious when her co-star and lover, Celia St. James, begged her to make their relationship public (in between husbands), and Evelyn declined in pursuit of grandeur. Celia was continually the victim of Evelyn’s career.
During the first bout of their relationship, Evelyn married and slept with a famous playboy to dispel the rumors of her and Celia’s love affair. Though Evelyn intended to protect their careers, their livelihoods— to protect Celia— Celia could not get past the infidelity.
Morality, as we see it
Evelyn’s first marriage was an escape from the environment she grew up in. Her future marriages were often an escape from something, as well. Evelyn built herself up from nothing, and she often had to use men as tools to do so. It’s no surprise that Evelyn she her affair— an immediately-annulled marriage and a one-night stand— as several layers removed from her real life. Evelyn viewed her Vegas marriage as work, not love, and certainly not infidelity.
Celia was a different story. She could afford the luxury of passion. Evelyn’s image was her everything, while Celia always had her wealthy family to fall back on. When Evelyn continued to make clever, yet hurtful, career moves, the pair continued to call it quits, over and over again. The circumstances surrounding their careers made them repeatedly incompatible.
The two ended up together, which is usually a component of a happy ending. But their lives took so much from them. They watched their only queer companions die, never having the chance to come out, or join a movement towards liberation. When Evelyn and Celia reunited for the last time, Celia announced that she had a respiratory condition that only left her a decade or so left to live. She wanted to move somewhere out of the country, somewhere warm.
For the first time, Evelyn indulged, and they lived together until Celia’s dying day.
Upon Celia’s death, Evelyn lost every remaining connection she had to the queer community. Harry and John, who married Evelyn and Celia to cover up their relationship, had since passed. John died of a heart attack, Harry of a drunken car crash, then Celia, and lastly, Evelyn’s own daughter. With no one left but her assistant and a plan to end her life, Evelyn decided to finally tell her story.
Rectifications & justifications
The outlet Evelyn used to tell her story, though, proved her moral grey-ness. Evelyn handpicked Monique for her tell-all to rectify some damage she had done decades prior. Evelyn knows several truths: Celia St. James was the great love of her life. Most of Evelyn’s marriages were stunts of her own making. And Monique was chosen as the author of her biography because Harry, Evelyn’s dear friend, fake husband, and the father of her only child, killed Monique’s father— Harry’s lover following John’s death— in his drunken accident.
Evelyn left Monique’s father, already dead, at the scene of the accident, rushing Harry to the hospital in hopes of saving him. Evelyn’s decision reshaped Monique’s entire worldview as a child. Monique thought her father was the one driving drunk. She spent much of her childhood angry at his supposed stupidity and recklessness. Though Evelyn could argue she was preserving her own daughter’s view of her father, she ruined another daughter’s view of their father. This raises the question: is being willing to do anything for someone the great act of love we think it is?
The people in The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo loved each other for a long time, in ways that didn’t always pan out, in ways that hurt, in ways that brought others down in their need for self-preservation. When Celia died in Evelyn’s arms, it was expected, planned for, but never welcome. Even with decades of love between them, Evelyn begged for more time.
There’s a lot of love in their stupid, silly, unfair lives, which makes this book all the more worthwhile.
The novel ends with an examination of Monique’s morality. After learning of Evelyn’s breast cancer, Monique suspects Evelyn is going to kill herself. As she makes her way home from Evelyn’s, she debates turning around. Is it ethical to save a dying woman who wants to go in peace?
Morality is a complicated thing, informed by the collective life knowledge we have in the moment. Monique knows Evelyn is a proud, lonely woman who has finished telling her story. So, Monique doesn’t turn around.
With Evelyn declared dead the next morning, Monique is left with Evelyn’s truths. She debates whether she should include the bit about her father, who her mother didn’t know was queer. The author never resolves that plot point, never informs us of Monique’s decision.
Monique, like Evelyn, is in a place where she must decide between telling the truth and protecting the people she loves. With Evelyn’s biography being a highly-anticipated release, Monique is operating under public scrutiny like never before. Even with her mother’s feelings to consider, she has no idea what other people she might hurt in the process of telling the truth.
Or in the process of telling a lie.
Monique, like Evelyn, learned that truth and morality are not intrinsically tied.
As Monique deliberates, it’s almost as if Evelyn is looking over her shoulder, smiling softly and saying it’s not that simple, is it?