Published in 2017 by Atria Books
I’ll tell you a secret about me from the outset: I love glamourous drama. I’m a Real Housewives fan, I follow royal scandals and I’m generally up-to-date on hollywood gossip. So I was probably just the kind of person the author and publisher of this book wanted to pick it up.
The non-spoiler description is this: Famous and Infamous film star Evelyn Hugo has decided to sell all of her famous gowns to give funds to breast cancer research. She reaches out to a famous magazine to get a very specific writer, virtual unknown Monique Grant, to write a story about the sale. Or at least thats what she claims. It quickly becomes clear that what Evelyn Hugo wants is far beyond a simple article, she wants to share her sensational life story.
I’ll get into spoilers in a bit, but for now let me just say what a delight this book is. It’s got the right mix of drama, trauma and happiness that makes it a book you don’t want to put down. I listened to the audiobook, and that was probably an even more enjoyable experience because they put the money in for voice actresses to play Evelyn and Monique, giving their voices more clairty in the listening. Evelyn’s rise to fame is not easy, and though most of what she does feels like the sorts of things you’ve heard about Hollywood before (sex, booze and abusive husbands) there is also so much that is unique and fresh about this book. And while I saw the final twist coming, more on that later, it was still satisfying. I’m probably not the first review you’ve seen of this book but let me be the last before you pick it up for yourself!
Alright, let’s get into these spoilers!
Final warning: You will be spoiled if you read further!
There’s a few central questions that this novel turns around: the one the populous wants to know, who was the love of Evelyn Hugo’s life? And the one focuesed on our other narrator, why does she want Monique Grant to tell this story?
Well, the truth is the love of Evelyn Hugo’s life was a woman, Celia St. James, another hollywood film star. Secret lesbians! But no, even more satisfying, Evelyn Hugo makes incredibly clear that she is bisexual. She has loved men in her life and while Celia was the love of her life she won’t let anyone else dictate her identity, and as a bisexual woman I relate to that and love it.
The book follows the lead up of her falling in love with Celia but it also follows the heartache that follows. Their relationship isn’t perfect and there is a lot of complexity as to why that relationship doesn’t always work. In fact Celia and Evelyn are broken up almost as much as they are together in this book and I think the great thing is that while there are some clear reasons why that happens, choices Evelyn makes and a lack of communication, there is also so much more going on then just good or bad, right or wrong. They are in a difficult situation, it’s the 50s. Women are not given the rights they should be, AND, in case this wasn’t clear, it wasn’t ok to be queer. This book explores the decisions you have to make both to be famous but also to survive.
I also loved the way this book handled race. Evelyn Hugo was born Evelyn Herrera, a woman of cuban descent but to make her meteoric rise to fame she denies her heritage, changing her name, changing her look and crafting a new backstory that erases her history. The novel doesn’t shy away from that, Evelyn is confronted more than once by what she gave up by putting her heritage to the side. Also, Monique is a mixed race black woman, which is also fantastic. While the author doesn’t explore what this means for Monique very much it still comes up and the difficulty her parents had when they first got together is also part of that.
Now, for the moment you’ve been waiting for. The answer to that second question: Why did Evelyn Hugo, world’s most famous actress and known recluse, choose Monique Grant, divorcing, nothing special journalist, to write her biography?
Let’s step back. One of the big things we know about Monique is the complicated relationship she has with her father. He was a hollywood photographer, really talented, and he died in a car accident. Monique loved him but has always had to get past the difficult story that her father was driving drunk when he died. Except maybe he wasn’t. No, he definitely wasn’t.
Monique’s father was in a secret relationship with Evelyn’s male best friend. And that best friend was driving the car. And he was drunk. And Evelyn Hugo found them and made it look like Monique’s father was driving.
Of course, this is difficult for Monique but if you were paying attention to the way this story was told, you sort of knew this was coming. Evelyn skirts over it in a way she hasn’t with every other fact of her story. So when she tells Monique you know what she’s going to say. And Evelyn doesn’t ask for forgiveness. She knows what she did was wrong but she also knows she would make the same decision to protect the people she loved.
And as if there wasn’t enough conflict about what you think of Evelyn’s decisions, you also realize, through Monique, that Evelyn intends to kill herself. This is another complicated decision that can be polarizing.
Suffice it to say I really enjoyed this book! There is so much to think about and consider, would you make the same choices? Would you still get what you want if you did it? Such a great book that I can’t even truly do justice.