Image description: The cover of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. The cover is green, showing part of a face and a torso in an emerald green dress.
One of the benefits of supporting my Patreon is that you get access to first-look posts, like the first draft of this review, which was available to patrons last week.
And sometimes you get access to posts that never make it to the blog! April was such a busy month, and patrons got to read the first draft reviews of the books I read that month.
Will I ever write up full reviews of the books I read in April?
Who knows! If you’re desperate to know what I thought about The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, Introducing Teddy by Jessica Walton, A Girl Like Her by Talia Hibbert, and why I stopped reading Attachments by Rainbow Rowell and The Color Purple by Alice Walker, you’ll have to head over to the Patreon! (The three books I finished were all excellent and important, so I’m sure I will write up the full reviews eventually, but I’m not sure when.)
I started The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo at the end of April because I completely gave up on finding an epistolary novel that I could actually finish, and I just wanted to read something queer and feminist and fun. I’ve been making good progress on the Read Harder 2019 challenge, and at the end of April I had finished 9 of the 24 categories. So I figured I could take a break and read something outside of the challenge.
I’ve been in quite a serious Sad Mood since I got back from Australia, and I needed something fun. This review from Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian is what convinced me to give this book a try.
Evelyn is ambitious, hard-working, confident, and cut-throat. She describes herself in this way: “I’m cynical and I’m bossy and most people would consider me vaguely immoral.” She’s also explicitly, wonderfully BISEXUAL. I knew the book had queer content going in, but I had no idea that it tackled bisexual identity so specifically. There’s a specific scene early on in the interview process where Evelyn coolly asserts that she’s bisexual, and not gay as Monique has just assumed. Evelyn makes it clear she loved her husband and then a woman, so “don’t ignore half of me so you can fit me into a box. Don’t do that.” It was such a perfect slap in the face of monosexism. GO EVELYN. This section, as well as more than one other part in the novel, brought me to tears.Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian
It turns out that this book is an epistolary novel, since nearly every other chapter is either an excerpt from the book-within-a-book, or a series of newspaper articles, or a letter.
So I bailed right into exactly the right book. Delightful!
And this book truly was delightful.
The writing is witty and sharp, the characters are nuanced and well-rounded, and there are some really well-crafted moments of emotional intensity.
I’ll start with what I’m less enthused about… I read this immediately after finishing A Girl Like Her, a book about an autistic Black woman, written by an autistic Black woman, and reading half of The Color Purple, also by a Black woman, also very clearly about race by someone with insider knowledge. The fact that Taylor Jenkins Reid does not have this insider knowledge, and includes two protagonists of colour (Monique Grant is biracial, and Evelyn Hugo is Cuban, though entirely and intentionally white-passing), lent a certain lack of depth and nuance to the discussions of race. It wasn’t that the representation was terrible or stereotypical, but coming immediately after being immersed in writing about race, by Black authors, I noticed it.
For example, we learn that Ruth, the protagonist of Talia Hibbert’s A Girl Like Her, is Black organically, later in the book, through physical descriptions that refuse to exoticize or dramatize the fact that she’s Black. It was revealed in the same casual way that many descriptions of white characters are done; skin tone is not the most interesting or relevant part of the character’s experience of themselves. And Hibbert managed this without downplaying Ruth’s experience of racism in the majority-white town.
In contrast, Monique’s skin tone and biracial identity are introduced in the very first paragraph. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but the contrast really struck me. When I read that description, I had to pause the audiobook and look up the author, because it came across as someone wanting to draw attention to the capital-D Diversity of their writing.
After that initial impression, I wanted to get a better understanding of what I was about to read. I tracked down some interviews with Taylor Jenkins Reid that specifically addressed her choice to write queer characters and characters of colour when she is white and straight, she acknowledged how problematic this is, and talked about the thought that she put into it. I also appreciate that she’s said she won’t be writing another book like this, and will instead focus on amplifying marginalized writers.
From an interview at Bi.org:
Do you think it’s your place to to tell the story of how these marginalized groups feel when you’re white and straight?
Yes, and no. Most importantly, no. We have a problem, in publishing and entertainment, of not centering minority voices. The solution to that problem is to bolster and support minority writers. There is no replacement or substitution for the incredibly important and, quite frankly, exciting work of reading, celebrating, and promoting minority writers. I naturally read stories of people different than myself but I’ve made a concerted effort to spend the small power behind my name blurbing minority voices and I will continue to spend whatever platform I have to champion the work of minority voices. This is what the majority should be doing and it is, first and foremost, where our energy needs to be spent.
Work written by people who have lived the story is always going to have a beauty and honesty that cannot be matched by someone writing outside of their own life.
The reason why I wrote this book despite not being queer or biracial is because, due to my work writing about straight white women, I have an audience. I continue to be handed a microphone. I have a book deal. And my feeling was that I could use that book deal, that immense privilege, to continue to write about people like myself or I could use it to write about people that often get pushed to the sidelines.
I chose to center my story on women who are underrepresented. I’m able to do that and still be considered mainstream because of my previous work. Which means I’m able to put a queer story in the mainstream and put it in front of people who might not otherwise read one. I am in a unique position to be able to do that and so I chose to do it.
But then I come back to my original point. It’s very hard to parse out, even for me, the line where good intentions can turn into misrepresentation or to a loss of opportunities for people to tell their own stories. I’m very proud of this book but the rest of my energy, for the time being, will be spent in trying to lift up other people to tell their stories themselves.Zachary Zane interviewing Taylor Jenkins Reid at Bi.org.
You can read that interview here.
There was a lot of racial diversity in the book, and I did appreciate the fact that the cast was more reflective of reality than a lot of books manage. These characters included both of the protagonists, as mentioned, but also many of the secondary characters, including two of Evelyn’s long-term personal assistants, and one of the major love interests in the novel. It is absolutely notable that two women of colour (one Latinx and one Asian American) are hired domestic labour, but I also noticed that the first person introduced as domestic labour is a white woman (which serves the purpose of destabilizing the idea that women of colour who cannot pass as white are relegated to the role of housekeeper, and allows the deep relationships that Evelyn has with the women later in the book to unfold in less problematic ways).
So, having noted that, on to what I loved!
I loved so much about this book.
I loved that Evelyn is such a complex character, who does horrible things in order to survive, and does other horrible things in order to succeed, and she looks at her own life with clear but compassionate eyes. Early in the book, when Evelyn has told Monique that she will tell her her life story, Monique says, “so you’ll confess your sins to me?” Evelyn is quick and firm in her correction. She says, “I didn’t say anything about sins. I’ll tell you the whole truth of my life, but I am not ashamed.” (Paraphrased because I listened to the excellent audiobook.)
Evelyn is bisexual.
The love of her life is a woman.
Her best friend, and the father of her child, is a gay man.
The lengths they go to in order to hide their orientations are sometimes extreme, and Jenkins Reid situates these choices in a historical context that includes threats to career and safety (a context that we often believe has changed, but for too many people, has not changed enough).
The core group (Evelyn and Harry married, Celia and John married; Evelyn and Celia lovers, Harry and John lovers) are together in New York during the Stonewall riots, and there are some wrenching conversations (and disagreements between them) as to how best to support their community of fellow queer folks without jeopardizing Evelyn and Harry’s guardianship of their child.
I read this book through the lens of my own anti-capitalist politics, and through that lens, I find the choice to contribute primarily through philanthropic donations that still leave each of them extremely wealthy… frustrating. I recognize that it fits with Evelyn’s character, and I recognize that it fits with what most people do, but it’s not enough. It’s just not enough. Especially now, as we try to figure out how to respond to massive and systemic injustice, I want to see representations of responding to injustice in ways that don’t so neatly align with capitalism and the charity model.
Still though. Overall… I really loved this book.
I loved the moment when Monique calls Evelyn a gay woman and Evelyn corrects her and confidently claims the label of bisexual.
I loved the moment when Monique assumes that the problems between Celia and Evelyn were because of Evelyn’s bisexuality, and Evelyn again corrects her and tells her that the problem was never that Evelyn was bisexual. It’s such a rare thing to see bisexuality represented in ways that are both complex and positive.
And I also loved the message of unapologetic success, even though it grated against my anti-capitalism. I loved how Evelyn demanded success for herself, and pushed Monique to demand it for herself, too.
I really recommend this book, and I’m glad that I gave myself permission to read a non-challenge book (and in the process, completed a category I had been struggling with!)
You can read my other reviews for the Read Harder 2019 challenge here!
My review of Binti for “a book by a woman and/or an author of colour set in or about space.”
My review of When They Call You A Terrorist for “a book of nonviolent true crime.”
My review of Washington Black for “a book by a woman and/or author of colour that won a literary award in 2018.”
My review of Fifteen Dogs for “a book with an animal or inanimate object as a point of view narrator.”
My review of The Widows of Malabar Hill for “a cozy mystery.”
My review of Circe for “a book of mythology or folklore.”