Hello friends. One of my favorite authors, Taylor Jenkins Reid, is releasing a new novel at the end of August, so I thought I would take a tour of her past work throughout the summer. Today I wanted to share my thoughts on a book that BEGS for a movie adaption. Luckily, it’s already in the works. Buckle up; it’s a wild ride.
Reid’s fifth novel chronicles the life of Hollywood legend Evelyn Hugo, through the eyes of her biographer Monique Grant. The chasm between Evelyn’s tabloid headlines and her actual reality is explored in-depth, and the two women share an unlikely and sad connection.
Evelyn Hugo is strategic. Her escape from humble beginnings and her introspection while “having it all” are nobody’s business but her own. Of her seven marriages to men, only three were authentic. Most of her calculating actions are motivated by optics; how different stories will play out in public discourse, and how public opinion of her will affect box office sales. She does what she has to in order to protect those she loves, and she would do it all again. She’s enigmatic and fierce and truly embodies Old Hollywood glamour.
Celia St. James is overshadowed. Despite being described as a multi-Oscar-winning actress, Celia’s primary role in the novel is to support Evelyn. Evelyn frankly details their decades-long romance, but she is only one side of the story. In all of their pivotal scenes together, I wished that we could see the same thing through Celia’s eyes, but perhaps this will be a future sequel, or left to fan fiction.
Harry Cameron is encouraging. In the hands of a less skilled author, his role as the “gay best friend” might feel campy and contrived, but his deep connection to Evelyn is heartwarming, and the two do share a happy marriage. Their connection transcends even their divorce, and Evelyn would do absolutely anything for him, as we see near the end of the novel.
Monique Grant is ambitious. We are introduced to her as a journalist at a magazine, requested by name to do a feature on Evelyn Hugo. Monique’s own trauma comes back to haunt her over the course of the story, but it feels at times as though Reid is stretching for a connection between her narrators. The final revelation of their connection comes entirely out of left field, but it fits into the overall themes of the story.
Evelyn Hugo is definitely a composite of stars like Liz Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, and Grace Kelly, three names that evoke a clear picture of “1950s Hollywood”. Reid anchors her story in the real place behind this mythical utopia, primarily through fashion. Because a dress auction is the impetus for the story’s central interview, Evelyn’s pivotal moments are often framed and described in terms of her clothes.
One of the most interesting features of this story is the tabloid headlines inserted between chapters. The contrast between the “public stories” and Evelyn’s true reality is sharp, and it encourages me to rethink the headlines I see in the supermarket.
Because the novel spans roughly sixty years of Evelyn’s life, there is a balance of significant moments and “fly-over eras”. Periods of ten or twenty years are described in a paragraph, while singular conversations can be whole chapters. Reid expertly captures the complexity of being human in Hollywood with multiple engaging perspectives.
I do take issue with the framing of the novel. I think Monique is honestly a completely unnecessary character/narrative device. And that is the problem, she’s less her own developed character and more a framing device for Evelyn’s sweeping epic. One could argue that reducing everyone else to props around Evelyn is a symbolic cultural critique, but I see it as trying to fit too much water into a too-small jar.
While there are a few elements I might change if I had the skill, this is an engaging and moving novel that will appeal to history and film buffs, and romance enthusiasts. I would recommend this to women (over 16 or so) who want to read something better than Danielle Steele, but not as highbrow as F. Scott Fitzgerald. I give this 9/10 stars for engaging characters, a gorgeous aesthetic, and a sweeping pace. One point docked for Monique’s mishandling.