Queerness and bisexuality: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo – Book Analysis

Book analyses are essays which closely and critically examine specific characters, relationships, topics or themes in a book.

Spoilers

You can find a full spoiler-free review of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo here.

Content warning: Discussions of biphobia, homophobia and sexual assault.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (TSHOEH) has multiple queer characters including the main protagonist and title character, Evelyn Hugo, who is an openly bisexual woman. Evenlyn has multiple romantic and sexual relationships with men and one serious long-term relationship with Ceila, a lesbian, whom she considers to be the love of her life. Evelyn’s character and her identity as a bisexual woman is going to be the focus of this post.

Queer representation in books has vastly improved in recent years, but there’s still a long way to go. It’s practically impossible to accidentally stumble upon a book with queer characters; it’s something that readers usually have to actively look for. Finding representations of bisexuality can pose even more challenges due to the high levels of bi-erasure both in and out of the queer community and across all mediums. Despite bisexuals representing over half of the LGBT+ community, its an identity that continues to be misunderstood and erased. Therefore, the power of having an explictly bisexual character with Evelyn saying the words, “I am bisexual” cannot be understated. It provides validation for bisexual readers and the significance of representation – of seeing ourselves reflected in what we read – is huge.

I’m bisexual. Don’t ignore half of me so you can fit me into a box, Monique. Don’t do that.

As a straight woman, Taylor Jenkins Reid (TJR) cannot always capture the complexity and first-hand experience of what it means to be queer, but she generally pulls it off well. Evelyn’s internalised biphobia, struggle to accept and understand her queerness and fear of being outed is particularly striking.

Maybe if I’d spent my whole life fighting off feelings for women, then I might have had a template for it. But I didn’t. I was taught to like men, and I had found – albeit temporarily – love and lust with a man. The fact that I wanted to be around Ceila all the time, the fact that I cared enough that I valued her happiness over my own, the fact that I liked to think about that moment when she stood in front of me without her shirt on – now, you put those pieces together and you say, one plus one equals I’m in love with a woman. But back then, at least for me, I didn’t have that equation. And if you don’t even realize that there’s a formula to be working with, how the hell are you supposed to find the answer?

Evelyn’s struggle to understand her sexuality and her feelings towards Ceila is a direct consequence of her attraction to and relationships with men. When the world in which we live is so binaried, often the only choices we believe we have are gay or straight. Evelyn is initially unable to recognise that her feelings for Ceila go beyond friendship and even when she does, her intense internalised biphobia prevents her from truly being able to accept it. This manifests itself whenever she’s faced with the possibilty of being outed and Evelyn immediately goes on the defensive.

Even when Ceila is insistent that she and Evelyn should be open about their relationship and to hell with the consequences, Evelyn is adamant that they can’t go public. It’s a recurring argument for the couple with Ceila tiring of having to hide and Evelyn insisting it’s necessary for their safety. In fact, when Evelyn is almost outed by a Hollywood newspaper, she takes the drastic action of eloping with a rock-star who she doesn’t even know which has a hugely traumatic outcome.

We’d tell the truth about our lives, and they’d bury us. We could end up in prison or in a mental hospital. Do you get that? We could be committed. […] The world is ugly, and no one wants to give anyone the benefit of the doubt about anything. When we lose our work and our reputations, when we lose our friends, and, eventually, what money we have, we will be destitute.

Evelyn’s fear of being outed and the consequences of that are very real for her and always at the forefront of her mind. She’s not just afraid of losing Ceila, but their careers, their money and everything they have worked to build for themselves. This fear is informed by the endless battle Evelyn has with internalised homophobia and biphobia.

Homosexuals were misfits. And while I didn’t think that made them bad people – after all, I loved Harry like a brother – I wasn’t ready to be one of them.

On the one hand, Evelyn embraces her love for Ceila and insists that it’s right; that it’s the world that’s wrong for not understanding or accepting them, but internally she feels turmoil over her relationship with Ceila. She never seems able to put the pieces together to make it work and ultimately sabotages her relationship with Ceila. What I struggled with most with the way this is written is that Evelyn’s reasoning for wanting to hide her bisexuality and relationship with Ceila is framed by TJR as being because she was fame and money hungry.

Now that I don’t have her, and I have more money than I could ever use in ths lifetime, and my name is cemented in Hollywood history, and I know how hollow it is, I am kicking myself for every single second I chose it over loving her proudly.

This completely invalidates Evelyn’s very real and justified feelings about coming out publicly. She doesn’t want to lose her career or money, that’s obviously a factor, but it’s so much more than that. Evelyn is genuinely afraid of what might happen to her and Ceila if they come out. The scene that really highlighted this for me was her reaction to the Stonewall riots.

I started crying when I realized those men were willing to fight for a dream I had never even allowed myself to envision. A world where we could be ourselves, without fear and without shame. Those men were braver and more hopeful than I was. There were simply no other words for it.

I knew it was imperative that I hide, yet I did not believe I should have to. But accepting that something is true isn’t the same as thinking that it is just.

Evelyn doesn’t hide out of selfishness or a desire for money or to protect her Hollywood career, she hides out of fear and because she believes it’s necessary for her safety and the safety of the woman she loves. She feels that she must make certain sacrifices in her relationship with Ceila to live a life free of discrimination, hate and danger.

I was under no illusions about how much it has cost Ceila and me to be together and it was gong to continue to cost us more. It was like a tax on being happy. The world was going to take fifty percent of my happiness. But I could keep the other fifty percent.

The one aspect of bi-erasure and biphobia that is handled very well is that which Evelyn faces from Ceila. It’s the type of prejudice and discrimination that bisexual women sometimes face from gay women. Ceila, like society, believes that there is only gay and straight and she projects her own identity and feelings onto Evelyn, even when Evelyn makes it clear that she’s not gay.

I hated being called a lesbian. Not because I thought there was anything wrong with loving a woman, mind you. No, I’d come to terms with that a long time ago. But Ceila only saw things in black and white. She liked women and only women. I liked her. And so she often denied the rest of me. She liked to ignore the fact that I had truly loved Don Adler once. She liked to ignore the fact that I had made love to men and enjoyed it. She liked to ignore it until the very moment she decided to be threatened by it. That seemed to be her pattern. I was a lesbian when she loved me and a straight woman when she hated me.

For me, this quote really captures the complexity of the tension that sometimes exists between gay and bisexual women. Ceila deeply loves Evelyn, but resents her attraction and past relationships with men. As a gay woman, she cannot relate to or completely understand Evelyn’s ability to be with men as well as women. She projects lesbianism onto Evelyn because it makes her feel more safe and secure in their relationship. This speaks to a very common aspect of biphobia – the assumption that a bisexual woman in a relationship with a woman will always inevitably leave her for a man. Despite Evelyn reassuring Ceila that she loves her deeply and is committed to her completely, Ceila’s insecurities get the better of her on occasion. It’s not to say that Ceila doesn’t have reason to feel the way she does, since Evelyn continues to have affairs with men whilst they are together and in the time they are apart, which brings me nicely onto my next point.

Although many aspects of Evelyn’s sexuality are well-written, the portrayal of her as a sexual woman and her ongoing sexual relationships with men plays into the negative stereotypes associated with bisexuals. Evelyn is an attractive, sexy woman and from a young age she willingly uses sex to her advantage. Her choice to sleep with Mick Riva is one that she makes out of desperation to hide her true sexuality and relationship with Ceila but may unwillingly contribute to biphobic narratives. Generally, Evelyn’s persistent sexual relationships with men insinuate that even when she’s in love with a woman and in a committed relationship with her, she cannot resist the lure of a man. This feeds into biphobic rhetoric about infidelity, promiscuity and the overbearing “straightness” of bi women. This is addressed by TJR with the following quote from Evelyn:

There’s a difference between sexuality and sex. I used sex to get what I wanted. Sex is just an act. Sexuality is a sincere expression of desire and pleasure. That I always kept for Ceila. […] Being bisexual didn’t make me disloyal. One has nothing to do with the other. Nor did it mean Ceila could only fulfill half of my needs.

This demonstrates some awareness from TJR that she was perhaps contributing to biphobic rhetoric in her depiction of Evelyn’s sexuality, so it’s important that she addressed that. Nonetheless, Evelyn’s insistence in Chapter 46 that it’s her selfishness and desire for fame that negatively impacted her relationship with Ceila is only half of the story. It feels lke a very purposeful attempt by TJR to take a backwards step and deny the significance of the consequences of Evelyn’s struggles with her sexuality and queer identity on her relationship with Ceila. Evelyn admits that her downfall is using sex to get what she wanted even when she had other options at her disposal, but there’s no acknowledgement that a large part of why she continued to use sex in this way is because she couldn’t accept her bisexuality.

I broke Ceila’s heart because I spent half my time loving her and the other half hiding how much I loved her.

This quote is taps into the true reasons for Evelyn’s actions and the hurt she causes Ceila – it’s because she never truly allows herself to love Ceila unreservedly, proudly and without shame. She’s unable to reconcile her love for Ceila with her bisexuality and uses sex with men as a form of self harm. This beckons to a very important and very real issue that bisexual women face of being at higher risk of sexual abuse, assault and harassment than straight women. In this regard, Evelyn’s experiences of poverty, domestic abuse and sexual assault are representative of the tragic experiences bisexual women face.

Therefore, despite the depiction of bisexuality in TSHOEH being flawed and sometimes contributing to biphobic rhetoric, it captures the core of a lot of the struggles bisexual women may face. It tackles the risks of poverty, domestic abuse and sexual assault that bisexual women face at disproportionate rates compared to straight women and actively addresses biphobia and bi-erasure. Many queer women, myself included, can see pieces of themselves reflected in Evelyn and that is important for so many reasons. Like Evelyn, many bisexuals today still do not have the formula to understand their attractions and sexual identity. Binaries continue to dominate our society and our understandings of sexuality and reading a book like this and finding a character like Evelyn might just help other queer readers to understand and/or accept their identity and live freely and proudly in a way that Evelyn was unable to.

Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo – Book Review

✨ Spoiler Free ✨

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication year: 2017
Audience: 16+
Content warnings: Domestic abuse, alcoholism, misogyny, child neglect, statuatory rape, rape, underage marriage, slut shaming, homophobia, biphobia, toxic relationships, abortion, terminal illness, death/loss.

Synopsis

Evelyn Hugo, Hollywood starlet of the 1950s, has had a successful acting career spanning decades. She’s infamous for her talent and beauty, but it’s her scandalous personal life and seven marriages that is most intruiging. In a tell-all interview, Evelyn aged 79 finally reveals her life-story to young journalist, Monique.

What I liked

  • The plot
  • Evelyn’s characterisation
  • The themes
  • The setting (1950-80s Hollywood)
  • LGBTQ+ representation
  • Complex relationships

What I disliked

  • The jumping from past to present
  • Monique’s arc

Plot and Structure

The story begins with Monqiue, a young and fresh journalist who has recently started working for the magazine Vivant. When Evelyn Hugo gets in touch with Vivant to specifically request that Monique interview her, Monique is elated and believes she’s finally getting her big break. What follows is a story divided into seven main sections – one devoted to each of Evelyn’s husbands – as Evelyn recounts her life-story to Monique. Throughout, it flits from past to present, with a majority of the middle section focused on Evelyn’s past.

Similar to other books by Taylor Jenkins Reid (TJR) that I’ve read, the book is more character focused than plot heavy and the plot that is present is driven by the drama and emotional ups and downs of Evelyn’s life. Much like Daisy Jones and the Six it provides an insight into the explosive, tumultuous lifestyles of the rich and famous. It touches on the corruption of Hollywood within the context of the MeToo campaign, shedding light on the rampant misogyny and abuse that women in Hollywood and the media industry have had to endure and continue to suffer from. Most of the topics it touches upon are upsetting, but the way in which they were handled is incredible. There’s an authenticity to it and the characterisation of Evelyn’s character is so strong that it didn’t feel in any way exploitative. In general, I loved the plot from beginning to end and had only one gripe – Monique’s arc.

This was my second read of the book (see the end of the post for my first review), and I remember being indifferent about Monique the first time, but this time I just felt like she was unnecessarily stealing precious page time from Evelyn. I was so invested in Evelyn’s story and so addicted to her character and life, that I wanted to stay there and not be pulled back to the present. Monique does have a very important part to play in the story, and without her it wouldn’t be the same story, but unfortunately, her character and backstory is underdeveloped and in comparison to Evelyn who was such a big personality and character, she fell completely flat for me.

Writing Style

I really liked the writing style in this book. It’s not over the top prose; the language is modern but there’s an emotional depth to it which touched my heart. The dialogue is well-written and isn’t stiff or awkward like a lot of dialogue in historical fiction written by modern authors.

It’s always been fascinating to me how things can be simultaneously true and false, how people can be good and bad all in one, how someone can love you in a way that is beautifully selfless while serving themselves ruthlessly.

Characters and Relationships

Oh, Evelyn, Evelyn, Evelyn… as a character I love her with every ounce of my being. It is Evelyn’s character that makes this book worth every single one of those five stars. She’s one of the most complex, flawed and nuanced characters I’ve read in fiction. I love that TJR built Evelyn on so many cliche tropes but elevated her way above that. On the surface, Evelyn is a beautiful, successful Hollywood actress that every man wants to be with and every woman wants to be, but there’s so. much. more. to her than that. I could expand but would slip over into spoiler territory. If you’d like to read more of my thoughts on Evelyn’s character and her sexuality you can read a full analysis here 👀

The relationships are every bit as good as Evelyn’s individual character. It’s not just the main romance, but even it’s all of Evelyn’s relationships. Although some of them are awful and harmful to Evelyn, the honesty of what TJR captured in those relationships means that I can’t do anything but admire what she achieved with those relationships. Evelyn’s relationships and friendships are all complex and turbulent just like her and I enjoyed reading about those ups and downs even when they were at their extremes. The main love story is stunning and goes in directions you won’t anticipate.

Concluding thoughts

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is one of my all time favourite books. This book was the reason I fell back in love with reading and for that reason alone it will always hold a special place in my heart. However, this book also deals with very complex and important topics in a respectful, illuminating way. The characters (even minor ones) are dynamic and flawed as are the relationships. Although upon re-read, I felt that Monique’s arc could’ve been improved on, her significance within the story cannot be understated. I love that TJR manages to subvert all expectations and tropes with this story and if it’s your first time reading, I guarantee it will take you by surprise.

I’d recommend The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo if:

You’ve read Daisy Jones and the Six and liked it OR you’re looking for a historical fiction depicting the glitz, glamour and gossip of vintage Hollywood which explores hard-hitting topics, has a flawed, complex female protagonist and a heart-wrenching love story.

This review is based on a re-read. I first read the book in January 2020if you would like to read my original review you can find it over at Goodreads (it’s also spoiler free).

Have you read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo or are you planning to read it? Let me know in the comments!

Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.