Books

‘The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo’: celebrity, success, and social media

Detailing an aging movie star’s mysterious and glamorous life story, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was one of the biggest books of 2021.

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s second novel, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, follows the life of the titular character in the form of a fictional biography. Full of ‘Old Hollywood’ glamour, intrigue, and complex relationships, the book recently spent more than 50 weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list, four years after its publication in 2017.

As such, it’s interesting to examine the various factors — involving usual players like social media and critical acclaim  — that led to The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo’s gigantic surge in popularity.

Ava Gardner, whose life story inspired 'The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.'
Ava Gardner, whose life story inspired ‘The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo’ (Photo: Ava Gardner Museum)

Inspiration for the novel

Taylor Jenkins Reid’s initial inspiration for The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was attributed to a book titled Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversation — an unofficial memoir that detailed the movie star’s recorded conversations with a journalist. Published posthumously, the book covered Ava Gardner’s glamourous exploits, like her romantic affairs with fellow celebrities Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra.

Following the publication of the Ava Gardner book, Reid began to “think about this idea of a fictional memoir of a Hollywood star.” In an interview with Popsugar, she explains her conceptual and research process:

“[After thinking on the fictional memoir form] I got really into the idea that you have a device of her telling her story to someone else and those two stories intersecting in interesting ways. I started doing all this research about Hollywood and actresses and various scandals and coverups and all that, which is maybe the most fun research I’ve ever done in my life.”

Evelyn Hugo (and her seven husbands) draw comparisons to the life of Elizabeth Taylor — the iconic Hollywood actress who was married eight times, and had numerous affairs with fellow superstars of her era. But in addressing this time in film history, the racial component to superstardom was also of concern to Taylor Jenkins Reid, who wrote her main character as a Cuban actress and cited Rita Hayworth as another inspiration.

“Rita Hayworth is a really big inspiration because she was Spanish, and she came to Hollywood and she was getting roles that weren’t leading roles the way that she wanted. So she changed her name, and she became Rita Hayworth. She went red, she curled up her hairline [to look like] a white woman… Given Evelyn is Cuban, she has that same decision to make. Does she want to be seen as a Latina woman? Or does she want to be a leading woman? At that point in Hollywood, those were the choices. You weren’t necessarily going to be a mainstream leading lady unless you fit a very narrow understanding of beauty and identity,” the writer said.

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Historical fiction novels set in the late Golden Age of Hollywood, like The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, often bring a swell of nostalgia, particularly for American readers. In an age where technology didn’t exist to mediate the interactions between stars and their audiences, novels exploring the social dynamics of this time contain a certain level of intrigue, mystery, and suspense, one that mirrors the relationship between the real-life actors and audiences of the mid-twentieth century.

Also, if we look at the enduring legacy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s entire bibliography, or writers like Edith Wharton and D.H. Lawrence, it can be said that the glamourous exploits of high society — as well as their complex moral and emotional conceits — have always been compelling fodder for readers around the world. With the central themes of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo following suit, it’s no surprise that the novel has captured the attention of millions of readers.

Critical acclaim

Another factor in the success of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was its reception, by both literary critics and everyday readers alike. With a 4+ star rating on Goodreads, with just under a million reviewers, the average audience response to the novel has been astounding. Readers have described it as “extraordinary and surprising” and — come the end of the world — the book that should be included in humanity’s time capsule for posterity.

Literary critics have also had a similar response, praising the writer for exploring the complex intersections of femininity and fame, with Kirkus Reviews describing it as a celebration of human frailty that speaks to the Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor in us all,and Buzzfeed reviewing it asriveting, heart-wrenching, and full of Old Hollywood glamour, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is one of the most captivating reads of [the year].”

Social media success

Similar to Colleen Hoover’s It Ends With UsThe Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was a viral phenomenon on TikTok’s literary sub-community, BookTok. At the time of writing, the book’s namesake hashtag has over 300 million views, with content ranging from reviews, to dream castings, Hugo-inspired lookbooks, fan theories and roleplay acting performances. Considering the book’s publication five years prior, and its recent ride on several bestselling lists, it’s safe to assume that the BookTok community’s enormous grassroots support for the novel has given it an otherworldly level of exposure.

@celiasivy argue with the wall ❤️ #fyp #thesevenhusbandsofevelynhugo #evelynhugo #t7hoeh #fancast #edit #booktok #anadearmas #ritamoreno #oldhollywood #backwheniwasyounger ♬ back when I was younger.. – nost. 70k!!!

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo’s mesmerising success story has even caught the attention of Netflix, with the production house recently announcing a feature film adaptation of the novel, helmed by American television writer Liz Tigelaar (Once Upon a Time; Revenge; Little Fires Everywhere). While there’s no release date, Liza Chasin for 3Dot Productions and Brad Mendelsohn for Circle of Confusion have been locked in as producers, and Reid and Margaret Chernin are set to executive produce.

@aymansbooks it still hurts #booktalkevent #thesevenhusbandsofevelynhugo ♬ Never Forget You – Noisettes

As a critical darling and viral sensation, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo’s alluring premise — rooted in the mystique of the Golden Age of Hollywood — has created a book that, by all measures, is a fascinating example of success.