Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Content Warnings: Sexual assault; Rape; Graphic domestic abuse; Homophobia; Biphobia; Substance abuse; Mentions of suicide
Genre: Sapphic Historical Romance
RATING out of 10 violets, with 1 being the least and 10 being the most pain
9/10 unnecessarily painful violets thrown under the bus.
This review contains spoilers.
This book is deceptive–with a title like The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, one does not expect Evelyn Hugo’s true love to be a woman. In fact I didn’t pick it up for years because I assumed the titular character to be straight. And what a lovely treat this novel was once I discovered this not to be the case (well, only for a little while). Evelyn (a composite of Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, and Audrey Hepburn) is powerful and manipulative, sometimes destructively so. Her status as a complicated and often unlikable character isn’t problematic for me–I’m always compelled by deeply flawed characters.
I wasn’t even upset by the fact that Evelyn and Celia St. James’ relationship was cyclical, that they were more often not together than together. If you know me, you know I enjoy a hefty dose of pain if the result is comfort and compassion and reconciliation. This was to be expected in a novel about mid-century Sapphics who aren’t afforded the luxury of openly living their lives together.
What is problematic, however, is that this novel sources its drama from–you guessed it–the death of all of its queer characters. Jenkins Reid sources tragedy first from depicting how Evelyn and Celia weren’t able to freely be together, and then later from allowing them to be only when Celia is dying of cancer. One of the most heartbreaking images in this novel is when the paparazzi capture Evelyn sobbing over her late husband Harry Cameron’s grave and the tabloids misconstrue her despondency over Celia as grief for Harry.
I’d sensed from the very start that the reason why Evelyn reaches out to Monique, was because Evelyn was intending to kill herself. And I was ready to see what Jenkins Reid had in store for Evelyn that brought her to that point (perhaps the pain of her only child dying of breast cancer). But the fact that Evelyn sought to kill herself before speaking her truth about her sexuality was just utterly devastating because it sends a strange, conflicting message, which–I guess–for Evelyn Hugo is quite characteristic but for queer readers utterly and thoroughly tragic.
If Evelyn were to have killed herself after Celia’s death, I still would have been upset. But the fact that she must kill herself before the truth of her sexuality and her relationship with Celia St. James is published for all to see grinds my gears. Yes, Evelyn is of the older generation whose sexuality (if not heterosexual) must be kept entirely secret. But to send the message that everyone needs to be dead first before “coming clean” about their truth? I can’t. It’s too painful. It’s too much like the only messages sent in the media when I was coming out about ten years ago–if you want to be happy and live your truth, you can only do so for a little while, because the world is going to eat you alive.
I’ll admit. I gobbled up The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. It was delicious. Until it wasn’t. As soon as I realized Jenkins Reid intended to kill off not only Evelyn but Celia, too, I grew bitter and introspective. I’ve come to expect (like all of you) queer stories to end tragically. But this one makes too big a deal out of keeping Evelyn’s sexuality a secret until she’s dead. It’s Too Big of a Deal for it to not hurt.
Before I’d gotten to the part where Celia was dying of cancer, I looked to see if Jenkins Reid is a part of the LGBTQ+ community in attempt to gauge what kind of pain I was in for. I stumbled upon a Goodreads Q&A session, in which someone had asked the author her intentions in writing about the LGBTQ community. Jenkins Reid replied, “There are a lot of people in my life — ever since I was a child — that have lived within some definition of the LGBTQ community. There are countless beautiful love stories to be told regardless of the gender of the people who don’t often get their stories told in such a mainstream way.”
There are a number of things I want to break down here.
I don’t want to say that she has no right to tell LGBTQ stories. For all we know, Jenkins Reid could be a part of the LGBTQ community but is choosing not to disclose this. But if she’s seeking to “[tell] […] [beautiful love] stories of people who don’t often get their stories told in such a mainstream way”… is Jenkins Reid saying that she believes this to be a beautiful love story? And if this is her intention, does she mean to suggest that Evelyn and Celia’s tragic deaths are “beautiful”?
I’ll be the first to point out that we all love the tragically beautiful love story of Titanic. Nobody has a problem with that kind of love story, and it’s fine that they both die in the end because a movie on the Titanic, by definition, must end in mass death. That, and there are plenty of love stories where straight couples live long, healthy, and fruitful lives to make up for it. But neither Evelyn nor Celia had to die. Jenkins Reid chose death for these queer characters. If they could go to Spain to live out the rest of Celia’s days, they could have just as easily gone overseas to live out their happily ever after. It would’ve made the same point about the impossibility of living openly and truthfully in the United States in the twentieth century. And nobody. would. have. to. die.
One could argue that everyone, including Evelyn and Harry’s daughter dies. It does come with the territory if we’re talking about a character’s life from beginning to end. But every single death (besides their daughter) is of a queer character. And that death is tragic. Every single queer love story is smashed into pieces: not only does Celia’s husband (and Harry’s lover) John Braverman die, leaving him a shell of a man, but then Harry gets into a car accident with her next lover (Monique’s father), where they both die.
Jenkins Reid really goes all in with the bury your gays trope. There’s not a single queer character left standing at the end of this thing. And I’m not sure if I can forgive her for finding beauty in unnecessary pain. I wonder if all the LGBTQ people that surround Jenkins Reid can forgive her for it, either.