Published: 13th June 2017
Genre: General Fiction
Trigger warnings: Domestic violence, strong sexual references, homophobia
Ageing and reclusive Hollywood movie 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 for the job, no one is more astounded than Monique herself. Why her? Why now?
Monique is not exactly on top of the world. Her husband has left her, and her professional life is going nowhere. Regardless of why Evelyn has selected her to write her biography, Monique is determined to use this opportunity to jumpstart her career.
Summoned to Evelyn’s luxurious apartment, Monique listens in fascination as the actress tells her story. From making her way to Los Angeles in the 1950s to her decision to leave show business in the ‘80s, and, of course, the seven husbands along the way, Evelyn unspools a tale of ruthless ambition, unexpected friendship, and a great forbidden love. Monique begins to feel a very real connection to the legendary star, but as Evelyn’s story near its conclusion, it becomes clear that her life intersects with Monique’s own in tragic and irreversible ways.
This is about as close as a novel can get to being a biography, and it is one where its fictional subject could hardly be any more memorable. With an outstanding primary narrative and a revelatory central romance that is unique in so many ways, it exists almost solely on the strength of one character and the power her voice creates, creating something extremely compelling as a result.
The writing radiates authenticity and each moment is given the emotional depth it deserves, by an author who is so talented at conjuring such exquisite clarity. Essentially told over two timelines, one sadly gets left behind on the development front and so the outcome is not without its flaws, but other than that it is quite the ride through endless marriages and showbusiness shenanigans.
Monique Grant is a reporter for Vivant, a contemporary magazine. One morning, she is informed by her boss Frankie that Academy Award winning actress and former Hollywood icon Evelyn Hugo has asked her to conduct an interview. For unknown reasons, Evelyn specifically wanted Monique, and it turns out that this is not just any interview – she wants Monique to publish the full story of her life as she tells it.
In the days that follow, an enigmatic Evelyn tells Monique everything. How she became a famous actress and her long and varied career during the golden age of Hollywood. All of her husbands and what those relationships entailed, from being a victim of domestic violence to entering into marriages of convenience and occasional contentment. And most notably, she answers the question of who was the love of her life.
Evelyn wants the world to know the truth, and also for Monique to obtain the highest possible amount of royalties for writing her biography. However, the story is clearly building up to another secret from being divulged – Evelyn is adamant that Monique will have every reason to hate her when she finishes telling the story, wherein lies the reason for Monique being chosen for this.
On the face of it the concept seems relatively simple, but it is in fact filled with so many intricacies and that makes the marvellous execution of Evelyn’s story all the more impressive. Every aspect of her life we dive into is realised with great honesty and candour, but also with a ferocity that reflects her personality to perfection, with multiple highs and lows.
It was good to see that the overarching romance in the book is made clear quite early on, and you could say that this is what the plot largely revolves around, with the frequent weddings becoming an undoubted yet critical sideshow. The way this romance progresses and the relationships Evelyn has with other characters provides the emotional heft, while the insights into her film career also play a very engaging part.
The only major problem was that the focus was placed so heavily on Evelyn’s story that Monique got left behind. It was always intriguing to find out the reason why she had been chosen by Evelyn, and once you reach a certain point this final twist becomes quite easy to predict, but what takes away the impact of it the most is that Monique is so underdeveloped.
It all begins in Monique’s point of view, but then the majority of the story thereafter is told by Evelyn with some occasional breaks. The transitioning between the two perspectives could have been a bit neater, but once Evelyn is is full swing, that is when this book does get quite special due to the sheer force of her character and her extraordinary life.
Fictional or not, Evelyn is an iconic character. She is complex in many ways, but her core personal traits remain the same – someone who is headstrong, knows her own mind, and is unapologetic of the choices she has made to further her life and career, or protect the people she loves. She is most certainly not a saint and you do not approve of everything she does, but you cannot fail to be positively enthralled by her.
It is a sad fact that many of the male characters such as Hollywood executives and film directors are obsessed by her beauty, but fortunately her most enduring relationship is not like that. Harry is very likeable and devoted and as such he and Evelyn are almost like brother and sister. The same cannot be said of Don, who is the kind of person who has a dark side lurking beneath his initial charm.
The arc involving Celia is the main highlight of the story, for the numerous layers of depth it brings and how much I was able to connect with it from the moment she was first introduced. It was also interesting to see the supposed rivalry between the leading actresses and how their personal lives were viewed as such a commodity by the press, as demonstrated by the many news clippings and press releases that appear frequently between chapters.
It is these articles that provide such a good snapshot of the book’s timeline and the era it portrays, where Hollywood stars were held up as timeless idols. We also see an age where there was less acceptance and how easy it was to be typecast within a certain role, and when Evelyn speaks in the present day you can tangibly feel that times have changed.
Just like the characters, the writing is very authentic and the number of meaningful passages or lines of dialogue spoken by Evelyn are too many to count. Some of these are very fitting and feel like the perfect words to convey the emotion of a particular scene, such as the Academy Award speeches and the letters exchanged between Evelyn and Celia. The ending is fitting too, underlining that Evelyn does everything on her own terms.
Overall, this is a fine piece of work with a stunning character portrait right at its very heart. Some sub-plots could have been better developed and not every page was gripping, but everything that is right about this book is of the truly highest standard and as such it completely captures your attention, elevating Evelyn Hugo to the status of fictional goddess.
In my humble opinion, no book should receive the kind of uproarious hype that this one did, regardless of how good it supposedly is. For a long time I thought I would never pick this one up as a result, but having absolutely loved Daisy Jones And The Six last year, it became inevitable that I finally would.
The outcome is, I rather enjoyed it. Evelyn is an incredible character and the writing from Taylor Jenkins Reid is customarily faultless. I did not love all of it, but when the story focused on the most poignant and pressing aspects of Evelyn’s life, it really did succeed.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5