“I’m under absolutely no obligation to make sense to you.”
“What are you after, Evelyn?”
“You ask too many questions.”
“I’m here to interview you.”
Where do I begin when talking about this book? The hype surrounding it was incredible, and the premise sounded right up my alley. It was the first book I bought after my self-imposed book buying ban, as I knew I was very late jumping on the bandwagon and couldn’t wait to see what everyone was raving about. I finished this book in a day. That surely means it was great, right? It lived up to the hype? Well… there’s a reason I finished it a couple of days ago, and am only writing my review now. Initially, when I finished reading, I thought that the book was excellent and that I would give it a high rating, but as I looked back on it, some of its more problematic aspects began to rear their heads. I would recommend this book, but not as passionately as I thought I would when I first began reading. I enjoyed it, but I know there are other readers who would it enjoy it more – the fact that this book has mostly four and five star ratings on Goodreads and so on is proof of that. Speaking of Goodreads, so many reviewers there state that they teared up or cried at the ending. I didn’t. I understand that everyone’s different and reacts to things differently, but part of me feels as though I must be missing something. For me this book was not exceptional, the best book I’ve read so far this year, my new favourite book of all time as so many others claim – but that does not mean I didn’t enjoy it.
…it’s mostly luck. And that you have to be willing to deny your heritage, to commodify your body, to lie to good people, to sacrifice who you love in the name of what people will think, and to choose the false version of yourself time and time again, until you forget who you started out as or why you started doing it to begin with.
I don’t usually do this, but in order to explain some of my reasons for rating this book as I have done – that is, good but not great – I feel I should warn you that this review will contain some spoilers. If you have not read this book yet, and do not want certain plot points revealed, then I would ask you to stop reading here.
I will begin by saying this book was incredibly easy to read, hence why I finished it so quickly. But even here I run into contradictions. Even when I first started reading, I felt that the writing style was overly simplistic, even juvenile in places, and at times it felt as though the author was holding my hand to point things out, at others as though she was using her characters simply as vessels to contiunally assert her viewpoints. With regards to the simplistic, ‘chick-lit’ style of writing, initially I felt relieved – but then, I had just read two non fiction books on the history of Ancient Rome back to back, which often proved a bit of a slog. Thinking about the writing style in comparison to what I had previously read wasn’t helpful, and considering it on its own terms it worked for the gossipy, dramatic story it was telling. That being said, a lot of the phrasing made it feel as though the author was trying to make the story more deep and meaningful than it actually was, it felt repetitive in places, and more than once I was fairly certain I had already read this part and had an overwhelming feeling of deja vu. While I was hooked initially, the story began to lose steam in the middle, and I realised I was only still reading in order to find out the mystery, rather than because I was truly invested in the story.
Speaking of the mystery… we’re presented with two mysteries at the outset of the book. Why has Evelyn chosen Monqiue, an inexperienced journalist, to write her biography, and who was Evelyn really in love with? As it turns out it wasn’t one of her seven husbands. Well, it sort of was. She confesses that she did love one of them. But she also loved one of her co-stars, and she was the true love of Evelyn’s life…
Evelyn Hugo is bisexual. This is reaveled at just over a hundred pages in. What I thought was going to be a big reveal later in the book was actually revealed relatively early on, so we see the relationship between her and Celia develop through the decades, how they have to hide it through various sham marriages and so on. This was an unusual premise, and one I enjoyed – and I should point out that the representation in this book was brilliant. Two protagonists who are biracial and female, bisexuality, a lesbian woman, a gay man… But as I think I said months ago in my review for Let’s Talk About Love – good representation does not equal good characters. The main mystery is not who Evelyn loved but why she chose Monqiue, and Monique is not an intersting character, just a stand-in for the audience, asking questions and trying to solve the mysteries of her subject’s life. But Evelyn…
Evelyn is a very complex and flawed woman. Passionate, determined and cruel, she loses parts of herself and hurts good people, she’s manipulative and selfish all in order to get what she wants, and says she would do it all over again. She tells Monique bluntly “When you’re given the opportunity to change your life, be ready to do whatever it takes to make it happen. The world doesn’t give things, you take things. If you learn one thing from me, it should probably be that.” I have nothing against that. Granted, I don’t agree with all the decisions she made, but she makes for a fascinating character, and I agree with some of the advice she gives, as well as her indignation when Monique assumes her sexuality – “Don’t ignore half of me so you can fit me into a box, Monique. Don’t do that.” She is not a good character in the sense of how she acts, but she is well-written and fun to read about. But guess who isn’t a good character, in how she acts and in how she’s written?
Celia. Evelyn’s true love. The bulk of the novel focuses on their on-again-off-again relationship, how they break up and make up, how they discover and explore their feelings for each other, how they’re forced to hide who they are. This was interesting, considering how their relationship was illegal when it began, how if they reveal who they are their careers will be destroyed and so on. But Celia herself… good God, she was annoying. I realise that sounds very shallow, so let me explain further. Since Celia was a lesbian while Evelyn was bisexual, Celia always acted as though she was superior, as she only loved women and hadn’t been sullied by relationships with men. Even when Evelyn professed her love for Celia and, at one point, begged her on bended knee to take her back, she continued to whine about Evelyn having been with men, as if this was not good enough for her, as if Evelyn wasn’t enough. If Evelyn was bisexual, she couldn’t truly love her because she was a lesbian. In fact, the reason Evelyn begs Celia to take her back is because she acted in a sexual scene with one of her ex-husbands and Celia, unable to handle this, walks out on her. Her biphobia was irritating enough, but the fact that she considered Evelyn acting this scene – doing her job – to be worth breaking up with her over…
The relationship between Celia and Evelyn was initially sweet and endearing, but it wasn’t long before I found it repetitive – how many times can Evelyn mention Celia’s hair spread out on her pillow? – soppy and shallow. Their dialogue, especially their arguments, felt like large chunks of text taken from an article arguing for and against different types of love, sexuality and so on, if that makes sense. People do not talk like that. The rest of the book didn’t read like this, it was just their arguments, as though the author was trying to cram in all these points about this type of relationship that she wanted to make. The premise of this book, its look through the decades of Old Hollywood through the lens of LGBT characters, that was great, as was the element of mystery that kept me reading. But that mystery, why Evelyn chose Monique, the actual twist near the close of the book…
All I can say is… huh. I wasn’t expecting that. The reason Evelyn chose Monique to write her story is because it was Monique’s father who died in the car crash with her best friend, homsexual producer Harry. Monique’s father was hiding his sexuality from his family, he and Harry were going for a drive and Harry, also an alcoholic, wrapped the car around a tree. Monique’s father died on impact but Harry was still alive, though barely. Evelyn and her driver help Harry to safety, though he soon dies, and move Monique’s father’s corpse to the driver’s seat so that he would take the blame for the accident and Harry’s reputation could be salvaged. I found this to be ridiculous on a number of levels. First of all, how were the police unable to discern what had actually happened, that the body had been moved and so on? Just cleaning the steering wheel with a handkerchief isn’t going to solve everything. Secondly, this is the reason you told Monique your story? After all those parallels between your life and hers, of course there has to be this actual dark connection between the pair of you. Of course. This much lauded surprise twist was a surprise to me, but it wasn’t much of a twist, unless by twist we’re talking about my stomach twisting a bit with dissapointment. Really? That’s your big reveal?
I realise that this review hasn’t been as eloquent and well structured as my usual reviews, and I think that may be because, even now, I’m still trying to figure out just how much I actually enjoyed this book, and how much I was dissapointed by certain aspects of it. For me, it did not live up to the hype but that doesn’t mean I disliked it, but I would say if you’re planning to jump on this bandwagon, be prepared for the unexpected – and not necessarily the unexpected you would expect. If that makes sense. I was expecting a tale of Old Hollywood glamour and romance, which I did get to an extent, but although I enjoyed the overall narrative, there were aspects of it – Celia and the ‘big reveal’ chief among them – that lessened my enjoyment somewhat.
This was not a bad book, despite the impression you may get from what I have said about the parts I didn’t like. There was many aspects of this book that I enjoyed. But overall, although it was a pleasant change from non-fiction about Ancient Rome, even taken on its own merits this was not the book for me.