This is a book that was this month’s read at my book club. I knew nothing about this book going in and judging by the title, I figured that it probably wouldn’t be a book that I’d enjoyed. Well, it just goes to show that you can’t judge a book by its title. When I was younger, I used to love reading biographies of old Hollywood Actresses, such as Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn and I thought about them as I read this book. There were many times as I was reading the story that I had to remind myself that this was only a fictional account of a fictional actress. But it felt so real!
This book follows an unknown celebrity magazine reporter at Vivant Magazine named Monique Grant who is beyond surprised when she learns that Evelyn Hugo, an aging reclusive Hollywood movie icon who hasn’t given an interview in decades – specifically requests Monique to interview her, much to the magazine editor’s dismay. Her editor is freaking out, not understanding why this actress would choose a rookie reporter who’s only done puff pieces up to this point and she has serious doubts as to whether Monique is up to the task. But regardless of her boss’s doubts, Evelyn wants Monique, and if she doesn’t get her, she threatens to go elsewhere.
Now Monique herself has just gone through a bit of bad luck herself. Her husband David has left her, and she feels as though her professional life is going nowhere. But regardless of why Evelyn has selected her to write her biography, Monique is determined to use this opportunity to move her career forward.
But once Monique arrives at Evelyn’s luxurious apartment, she learns that Ms. Hugo does not, in fact, wish Monique to interview her at all. What she wants is for Monique to write a book of Hugo’s entire life story, a story that nobody else knows and a project from which Monique could make millions.
What can she do but agree? So Monique then becomes Evelyn Hugo’s biographer.
There is, of course, a reason for this generous offer, one of the two twists in the book…this one not revealed until the end.
So Evelyn Hugo, though she has lived her entire life in the public eye, is full of secrets and she lets them loose one at a time. Evelyn constantly reinforces the fact that she has hidden many things from the public but all will become clear during their time together. Let me just say that there are so many juicy stories about Evelyn’s life’s that surprise and shock and reader.
The novel reads like an autobiography as we hear Evelyn Hugo’s life unfold. We learn how she started out as a 14-year-old Cuban girl who traded in her virginity for a ride to Hollywood and once in Hollywood, Evelyn became unstoppable, trading on her beauty and her sexuality, in order to achieve her dream of becoming a star.
The novel progresses, in linear order, from one husband to the next and each husband is given his own chapter with a special title that reflects their personality or Evelyn’s opinion of them. Some were good, some not so good. But Evelyn used all of them for her own gain in one way or another, often to move ahead to the next step in her career.
Her love life and her career take numerous twists and turns, but via her narration, we learn that what the public believed was nothing at all like what actually went on behind closed doors. It was all a fictional image – a mirage. It kind of reminded me of a line from the Wizard of Oz “Pay no attention to the man behind that curtain.” But however she managed it, Evelyn nearly always got what she wanted.
So true to her promise, Evelyn tells everything to Monique, and we learn about the scandals surrounding her, her heartbreaks and successes, the ups and downs of being a commodity in Hollywood during the 1950’s to the 1980’s, her constant plotting and planning to stay at the forefront.
Evelyn played the Hollywood game expertly — dated famous men to further her career and used her brains and her body to get what she wanted.
Yes, Evelyn is deeply flawed and aware of it, and even tells Monique on several occasions that she’s not a very nice person. She’s made mistakes — serious mistakes. But despite all her shortcomings and flaws and the lying, I strangely grew to like Evelyn more and more as the story moved forward.
But as Evelyn begins to share with Monique stories and events about her present-day life, a secret becomes finally exposed – one that connects Monique and Evelyn in a startling twist, causing both of the women to face the truth of it together as Evelyn removes her final mask.
WHAT I LIKED
I thought this book was fascinating with its glamorous tale of an over the top Hollywood life as well as its gripping portrayal of love in many iterations. I had a blast imagining all the Directors and Movie Stars from the golden age of Hollywood and what their lives may have been like.
But this book wasn’t just a simple tale of a woman who had a difficult time hanging onto husbands. Instead, what we have in this book is a multifaceted story of a powerful, career-driven woman who’s lived her whole life basically being two people, and in so doing, has created her own heaven and her own hell in the process.
I really loved the little newspaper gossip snippets that preceded each chapter. It was a brilliant juxtaposition between what the public was seeing and what was really going on behind closed doors.
I also really liked the diversity in this story. Evelyn is half Cuban, Monique is half African American, and there are three interracial relationships in the book, so it was refreshing to read a story with such a diverse set of characters.
I also enjoyed the friendship that developed between Monique and Evelyn as the day progressed. There grew a closeness and intimacy between the two of them as Monique learned more and more about the actress’s life and how she had to sacrifice her happiness many times over.
Evelyn, now at the end of her life, has come to terms that all the money, all the fame, all the glory, all those the phony people fawning over her meant nothing at the end of the day. Evelyn gave up the life she truly wanted for the fame she so desperately sought after and in the process, was never really able to obtain what she genuinely wanted — the love of one very special person.
Her life was sad in this way, illustrating well how money cannot buy happiness.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
There were only a couple of things I didn’t like about this book.
First of all, there was a bit of heavy foreshadowing which I didn’t care for and felt that it took a little bit away from the surprises at the end. I’m not a fan of the foreshadowing device, and I think this story would have been better served if the author had left it out.
I also felt that the details of the car accident were a bit rushed and unbelievable and I didn’t quite buy how easily the whole thing was swept under the rug.
Evelyn Hugo’s story was so gripping and compelling that it kept me turning the pages in a desperate need to discover the stories behind her seven husbands, and of course the answer to the one question everyone wants to know: who was her greatest love? The answer was quite the surprise, let me tell you.
This book has it all from excessive ambition, romance, love, betrayal, abuse, injustice, non-traditional families, race, misogyny, competition to survival in a difficult world.
I felt that it was also a reminder that life is short and we shouldn’t spend it being something we’re not, especially if we have to sacrifice love in the process.
Evelyn was a strong, brave, complicated, multi-layered character and as a reader, it was difficult at times to decide whether we liked her or hated her. Sometimes she was so self-absorbed and selfish that you wanted to scream at her; other times, so vulnerable that your heart broke for her.
This was a brilliant and fascinating read amidst all the glamor and scandals, and I loved it! When a book makes me feel as though the characters are real, that’s an accomplishment of a gifted writer. Kudos to my book club for choosing such a mesmerizing book. I gave this book five stars.