Review – Dear Mrs. Bird, by A.J. Pearce


Dear Mrs. Bird
by A.J. Pearce

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 281 Pages

Release date: April 5, 2018

Publisher: Scribner

Synopsis: 

A charming, irresistible debut novel set in London during World War II about an adventurous young woman who becomes a secret advice columnist—a warm, funny, and enormously moving story for fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Lilac Girls.

London 1940, bombs are falling. Emmy Lake is Doing Her Bit for the war effort, volunteering as a telephone operator with the Auxiliary Fire Services. When Emmy sees an advertisement for a job at the London Evening Chronicle, her dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent seem suddenly achievable. But the job turns out to be typist to the fierce and renowned advice columnist, Henrietta Bird. Emmy is disappointed, but gamely bucks up and buckles down.

Mrs Bird is very clear: Any letters containing Unpleasantness—must go straight in the bin. But when Emmy reads poignant letters from women who are lonely, may have Gone Too Far with the wrong men and found themselves in trouble, or who can’t bear to let their children be evacuated, she is unable to resist responding. As the German planes make their nightly raids, and London picks up the smoldering pieces each morning, Emmy secretly begins to write letters back to the women of all ages who have spilled out their troubles.

Prepare to fall head over heels with Emmy and her best friend, Bunty, who are spirited and gutsy, even in the face of events that bring a terrible blow. As the bombs continue to fall, the irrepressible Emmy keeps writing, and readers are transformed by AJ Pearce’s hilarious, heartwarming, and enormously moving tale of friendship, the kindness of strangers, and ordinary people in extraordinary times.

rating

four

I received a free copy of this book through a GoodReads giveaway. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

Dear Mrs. Bird is short and sweet. There is nothing really earth-shattering in terms of plot (odds are you’ll see most of the plot points coming before you get to them) but the narrative is imbued with enough humor and charm that it’s difficult to care about its predictability.

While the backdrop of this novel (WWII London) is rather bleak, the tone is surprisingly light and fluffy. The old slogan “Keep calm and carry on” will definitely come to mind as you watch Emmy go about day to day life in the midst of bombings and the looming threat of Hitler. This was one of the most interesting things about the book to me; Dear Mrs. Bird exemplifies how people are able to normalize just about anything. The danger of war is never forgotten, but Emmy and her friends have been living with it long enough that they’ve learned to live with it. Sure, Hitler is dropping bombs on their city, but everyday life, blossoming careers, and trips to night clubs must go on. There are moments when the danger becomes sickeningly real to them, but in between, letting life stop would be letting Hitler win, and they can’t abide that.

The letters Emmy sorts for her work at the women’s magazine are a large driving force in this novel. Mrs. Bird is loathe to respond to any queries about “socially unacceptable” problems, leaving very little in the “acceptable” pile. Emmy’s heart breaks seeing the letters of women in need (women with unfaithful husbands, unplanned pregnancies, and controlling mothers) go into the trash. Mrs. Bird’s old fashioned sensibilities about what constitutes ladylike behavior are leaving all the women with difficult problems out in the cold. Emmy’s inability to let these letters go unanswered endears her to the reader.

Fans of The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick or the work of Fredrick Backman will absolutely devour Dear Mrs. Bird. While there are heartbreaking moments and social commentary in this book, as a whole, Dear Mrs. Bird is a lighthearted read that is sure to lift your spirits.

Purchase links

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | IndieBound

Thank you for reading! If you’ve read Dear Mrs. Bird, please share your thoughts in the comments!

Capture2

Other places to follow me…
Tumblr | Facebook | Instagram | GoodReads

Review – House of Gold, by Natasha Solomons


House of Gold 
by Natasha Solomons

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 448 Pages

Release date: October 23, 2018

Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons

Synopsis: 

From the New York Times bestselling author of The House at Tyneford, an epic family saga about a headstrong Austrian heiress who will be forced to choose between the family she’s made and the family that made her at the outbreak of World War I.

Vienna, 1911. Twenty-one-year-old Greta Goldbaum has always hungered after what’s forbidden: secret university lectures, unseemly trumpet lessons, and most of all, the freedom to choose her life’s path.

The Goldbaum family has different expectations. United across Europe by unsurpassed wealth and power, Goldbaum men are bankers, while Goldbaum women marry Goldbaum men to produce Goldbaum children. Greta will do her part.

So Greta moves to England to wed Albert, a distant cousin. The marriage is not a success. Yet, when Albert’s mother gives Greta a garden, things at Temple Court begin to change. First Greta falls in love with her garden, then with England, and finally with her husband. But when World War I sends both Albert and Greta’s beloved brother, Otto, to the front lines–one to fight for the Allies, one to fight for the Central Powers–the House of Gold is left vulnerable as never before, and Greta must choose: the family she’s created or the one she was forced to leave behind.

Set against a nuanced portrait of World War I, this is a sweeping family saga rich in historical atmosphere and heartbreakingly human characters. House of Gold is Natasha Solomons’s most dazzling and moving novel yet.

rating

three

My thanks to Netgalley and G.P. Putman’s Sons for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

House of Gold is a sweeping family drama that follows the fictional Goldbaum family in the years leading up to and during WWI. I read a lot of historical fiction, but I’ve read very little set in this particular time period, so I was excited to get into this book. Greta, a member of the Austrian branch of the Goldbaum family, is the main focus, although the novel does delve into the perspectives of other people in her life. The cast of characters was one of the main strengths of the novel, and it was a very character-driven narrative.

Greta is gregarious and free-spirited. She is getting ready to marry Albert, a distant cousin and a member of the English branch of the family when we join her story. (Goldbaum family tradition involves intermarrying to keep their vast wealth within the family.) Greta has never met Albert when her marriage with him is arranged by the family and feels extremely ambivalent about the pairing. She doesn’t want to marry a stranger but is afraid of going against her family’s wishes.

While I was very invested in Greta and her story, the pacing took away some of my enjoyment of this novel. The way Solomons dabbled into the stories of other relatives occasionally made the story feel somewhat unfocused. The aside about Greta’s cousin’s gambling debts, for example, did not add much to the story. (It did move the story forward as a plot point, but it was not necessary to go into his perspective to do this.) These sections really just felt like they bogged down the pace. We have no reason to care about this character as he is a relatively minor one, so his obviously impending breaking point doesn’t actually introduce any tension to the story.

Conversely, other parts of the story seem to be entirely skipped over. Greta is pregnant with her first child and the next thing I knew, she was in labor with her second. Aside from just skipping over a big chunk of time, it pains me to think of the character development that could have been explored in that time frame. Greta is young and a bit flighty when we meet her. She is deeply changed by the war and by motherhood, but we don’t get to see any of those changes happening; we simply skip over from young, newlywed Greta to Greta as a mother of two.

Greta’s brother Otto is also a major character, although he is largely separate from her throughout the story. His story largely focuses on the war and some very interesting power dynamics come into play in this context. The Goldbaum family is rich beyond measure, but also Jewish in a time of rising antisemitism. The concept of wealth countering relatively little social privilege as well as instances in which it cannot do so play a large role throughout the novel. Otto’s story, despite his wealthy background, is ultimately tragic.

Overall, I enjoyed House of Gold despite my misgivings about the pacing. I became very invested in some of the characters, I liked the importance of the family’s Jewish identity in the novel, and the family’s personal affairs were balanced well with what was happening on a worldwide scale. Readers who enjoy family dramas and historical fiction set during war time may find this a worthwhile read.

Purchase links

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | IndieBound

Thank you for reading! Have you read House of Gold? What were your thoughts?
What is your favorite time period to read about? Let’s discuss in the comments!

Capture2

Other places to follow me…
Tumblr | Facebook | Instagram | GoodReads

 

Review – My Lady Jane

44878571_662601047467394_3647633372789866496_n.jpg
My Lady Jane
by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult, Fantasy

Length: 491 Pages

Release date: June 7, 2016

Synopsis: 

Edward (long live the king) is the King of England. He’s also dying, which is inconvenient, as he’s only sixteen and he’d much rather be planning for his first kiss than considering who will inherit his crown…

Jane (reads too many books) is Edward’s cousin, and far more interested in books than romance. Unfortunately for Jane, Edward has arranged to marry her off to secure the line of succession. And there’s something a little odd about her intended…

Gifford (call him G) is a horse. That is, he’s an Eðian (eth-y-un, for the uninitiated). Every day at dawn he becomes a noble chestnut steed—but then he wakes at dusk with a mouthful of hay. It’s all very undignified.

The plot thickens as Edward, Jane, and G are drawn into a dangerous conspiracy. With the fate of the kingdom at stake, our heroes will have to engage in some conspiring of their own. But can they pull off their plan before it’s off with their heads?

rating

four

This is a ridiculously fun novel, emphasis on the “ridiculous.” It’s an “alternate history” of England, where the driving conflict is between the Eðians (shapeshifting humans who can turn into animals) and the verities (who oppose the Eðians on religious grounds and denounce them as unnatural savages.) The novel is intensely humor-driven, with a splash of romance. If the humor doesn’t work for you, the novel as a whole will not, as it’s very much in your face for the majority of the story.

Our protagonist, the Lady Jane Grey (based on a real historical figure, like many of the major players in the book) is married off to Lord Gifford, who happens to be, much to her surprise… a horse. The two are married for political convenience at their first meeting, and there isn’t the slightest spark of affection between the two at the start. Jane is (understandably, I should think) upset at being married off to a horse without her knowledge; Gifford is similarly disappointed in the match, as Jane seems far more concerned about spending time with her books than with anything or anyone else. Their verbal sparring provides a good deal of the humor for the early portion of the book.

“No horse jokes,” he said.
“My lord, I apologize for the horse joke. If you put down the book—unharmed!—I will give you a carrot.”
He brandished the book at her. “Was that a horse joke?”
“Neigh.”
“Was that a horse joke?”

The characters are largely caricatures without a lot of depth, although that feels intentional. The novel as a whole has the feel of a humorous play. We aren’t meant to empathize with these characters (for the most part, anyway) so much as we are meant to laugh at them. Jane’s sole personality trait seems to be her undying love of books. Gifford spends half his time as a horse, so that doesn’t exactly give us a lot of time to explore his emotional depths. King Edward is defined primarily by his ambivalent feelings towards the throne and his desperate need to kiss a girl. The villains are a bit Disney villain-esque.

All in all, this is a fast-paced and intensely fun adventure, but it may make serious historians weep with the liberties with authors have taken with British history.

Purchase links

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | IndieBound

Thanks for reading! Have you read any novels that were “alternate histories?” What did you think? Share in the comments!

Capture2

Other places to follow me…
Tumblr | Facebook | Instagram | GoodReads

 

Review – The Witch of Willow Hall

37007910
The Witch of Willow Hall
by Hester Fox

Genre: Historical Fiction, Paranormal

Length: 368 Pages

Release date: October 2, 2018

Publisher: Graydon House

Synopsis: 

Two centuries after the Salem witch trials, there’s still one witch left in Massachusetts. But she doesn’t even know it.

Take this as a warning: if you are not able or willing to control yourself, it will not only be you who suffers the consequences, but those around you, as well.

New Oldbury, 1821

In the wake of a scandal, the Montrose family and their three daughters—Catherine, Lydia and Emeline—flee Boston for their new country home, Willow Hall.

The estate seems sleepy and idyllic. But a subtle menace creeps into the atmosphere, remnants of a dark history that call to Lydia, and to the youngest, Emeline.

All three daughters will be irrevocably changed by what follows, but none more than Lydia, who must draw on a power she never knew she possessed if she wants to protect those she loves. For Willow Hall’s secrets will rise, in the end…

rating

three

My thanks to Netgalley and Graydon House for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and are not influenced by the publisher. 

I was excited to get into this book, and while I enjoyed it overall, the reading experience was a bit underwhelming at times. Let me start with a nit-picky gripe about the cover: this takes place in 1821, roughly 130 years after the Salem witch trials, but the cover says, “Two centuries after the Salem witch trials, there’s still one witch in Massachusetts, but she doesn’t even know it.” Hopefully the cover is corrected on the final copy, but that seems like a rather strange error and left me feeling a bit apprehensive about the research which went into the historical period.

Lydia develops a romance with a Mr. John Barrett after the family moves into Willow Hall. This is down to personal taste and I know there are readers who won’t mind this, but the romance is a bit too “love at first sight,” which is somehow harder to buy than the witchcraft. I was also a bit put off by the fact that Lydia’s feelings towards Mr. Barrett are essentially “How could this perfect man love little old me?” That dynamic is common in romance, especially YA (I’m not sure if this novel is intentionally written as YA or not, but it feels like a YA novel to me) and it’s frankly a bit tired.

My last issue was that the novel felt a bit meandering – family drama, death, romance, and Lydia’s discovery that she is a witch all play a major role, but none of them felt like the main focus of the plot. It almost felt as if Fox were trying to cram two novels’ worth of plot lines into one, and the end result was like a half dozen angry cats crammed into a sack. I would have liked to see a few plot points plucked out in favor of developing those remaining a bit more fully.

That being said, I do see why people would enjoy this novel. The horror elements were deliciously creepy and spine-tingling. The slow reveal of the reason Lydia’s family has fled to Willow Hall and the scandal they left in their wake kept me hooked. The sibling rivalry and family scandal combined with the supernatural elements of the story, and the overall effect was a slow build of suspense up through the end of the story.

Lydia’s relationships with her sisters were just as important to the plot as the romance, which is always nice to see. Despite some of my issues with romance itself, I did like that it wasn’t the sole thing going on in Lydia’s life; please spare me stories of women losing themselves completely over a budding romance.

Hester Fox’s debut novel is ambitious in what it’s trying to accomplish. The end result is engaging and a bit Jane Austin meets Gothic novel meets YA. I’ll definitely be watching to see what Fox writes in the future.

Purchase links

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | IndieBound

Have you read The Witch of Willow Hall? What were your thoughts? Read any other good historical fiction lately? Please share in the comments!

Capture2

Other places to follow me…
Tumblr | Facebook | Instagram | GoodReads

Author Interview – Tara Lynn Masih (Author of My Real Name is Hanna)

Today I am joined by the talented Tara Lynn Masih, author of My Real Name is Hanna. This YA historical fiction novel is out September 15th and has been featured on GoodReads’ Ultimate Fall Reading List for YA Fans! Told from the perspective of a young Jewish girl living during the Holocaust, this is a poignant and beautiful story about human connection and tenacity of spirit. Fans of The Book Thief should check this out!

39346604

Book Blurb:

Hanna Slivka is on the cusp of fourteen when Hitler’s army crosses the border into Soviet-occupied Ukraine. Soon, the Gestapo closes in, determined to make the shtetele she lives in “free of Jews.” Until the German occupation, Hanna spent her time exploring Kwasova with her younger siblings, admiring the drawings of the handsome Leon Stadnick, and helping her neighbor dye decorative pysanky eggs. But now she, Leon, and their families are forced to flee and hide in the forest outside their shtetele—and then in the dark caves beneath the rolling meadows, rumored to harbor evil spirits. Underground, they battle sickness and starvation, while the hunt continues above. When Hanna’s father disappears, suddenly it’s up to Hanna to find him—and to find a way to keep the rest of her family, and friends, alive.

Sparse, resonant, and lyrical, weaving in tales of Jewish and Ukrainian folklore, My Real Name Is Hanna celebrates the sustaining bonds of family, the beauty of a helping hand, and the tenacity of the human spirit.

About the Author

2889627Tara Lynn Masih has won multiple book awards as editor of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction and The Chalk Circle: Intercultural Prizewinning Essays. Author of My Real Name Is Hanna (a Skipping Stones Honor Award Book) and Where the Dog Star Never Glows: Stories, she has published fiction, poetry, and essays in numerous anthologies and literary magazines (including ConfrontationHayden’s Ferry ReviewNatural BridgeThe Los Angeles ReviewPleiades, and The Caribbean Writer). Several limited edition illustrated chapbooks featuring her flash fiction have been published by The Feral Press and archived at such universities as Yale and NYU, and awards for her work include The Ledge Magazine‘s fiction award, The Lou P. Bunce Creative Writing Award, a Massachusetts Cultural Council finalist fiction grant, and Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best of the Webnominations.

Interview

Where did you get the inspiration for My Real Name is Hanna?

My family and I were watching a documentary, No Place on Earth, about Esther Stermer and her family and friends who lived in Ukraine during World War II and, for the most part, survived the Holocaust. We were riveted. The strength of Esther and the perseverance of her family, who hid in underground caves and battled fear, anxiety, starvation, and the Nazis, was inspiring to us all. I took the DVD back to the library but couldn’t forget the Stermers. I’m drawn to stories set in nature. We live so far apart from it now. Thinking of hiding in the bowels of the earth from the evil above, and the lessons we all could learn from the family on how to survive not just physically but emotionally gave me the drive to retell their story through my own fictional characters.

You’ve been published before, but My Real Name Is Hanna is your first novel. How did your writing process differ for this compared to, for example, your short stories? Was it a difficult adjustment?

It was very difficult for me to go from decades of condensing story to expanding on it for the first time. I was astounded when I finished the first real draft in three months. But it was full of holes and lots of problems. It took almost 5 years to get to the finished draft, with lots of help along the way. And as you can see, it’s still not an epic volume. But I think my training in short stories helped me to distill three years into a short novel.

Historical fiction tends to require a lot of research to be done well; what kind of research did you need to do for this book? What would you say is the most interesting thing you learned in your research?

Oh my, every kind of research. From food to birds to animals to customs to the war and the history of the region. Those first categories were fun and relatively easy to research. There is a wealth of research online these days for writers. However, the history of the region was incredibly complex. I can’t say I still know or understand it all. Ukraine has changed hands so many times. I feel for the country. I learned one reason is because of its fertile soil. So much of war and conquest is over trying to dominate the best land that contains water and grows crops.

For me, the most interesting research I did was on the Stermers themselves and how they were able to live underground for almost two years. Much of Ukrainian history was kept under wraps by the Russian government until the 1990s. And so few Jews survived in that part of the world. We’re lucky to have the Stermer autobiography and the work of caver Chris Nicola, who discovered their story and worked hard to preserve it. I encourage everyone who reads the book to watch the film. Hear the real voices, see the real survivors.

What made you decide to write this story as a YA novel specifically, vs. writing for any other age group?

40919597_3532518026764140_7721455577267699712_nI wanted to tell the story from the perspective of a young girl, and I wanted to tell it in a relatively simple, almost fairy tale-like voice. I wanted the younger generation to read a story that hasn’t yet been told in a Holocaust novel. Everyone wants to be seen and heard in life. When voices are purposely ended, it’s a tragedy that goes beyond words. But we need to gather words as much as we can to retell each person’s story, for those who were silenced. As a writer, for me, the most important story I can tell is one that might make readers think differently about their lives or the lives of others. 

What is one message that you hope your readers will take from My Real Name Is Hanna?

Be kind to everyone, but especially to those who you may view as different from yourself. Understand their worth, especially if they are being attacked in some way. Speak out, stand up. As a fellow human being, you have an obligation. It can happen again, and, in fact, it is happening on a smaller scale in places such as Syria and on the U.S. border.

You must have read a lot of books about the Holocaust. Can you recommend any to readers besides the obvious bestsellers?

I did read a lot. Irena’s Children, by Tilar Mazzeo, is an amazing biography about Irena Sendler, a Polish woman who saved thousands of Jewish children at great personal cost. We need to read about more positive role models these days. Another biography that had a huge impact on me was Greg Dawson’s Hiding in the Spotlight, about his own talented, beautiful mother, who played piano for the Nazis without their knowing she was Jewish. Hence, the title. Hasen, a classic from the 1970s by Reuben Bercovitch, is a beautifully written and tragic tale about two boys hiding from the Nazis in the woods. It should be read more than I suspect it is. Finally, The Were Like Family to Me, by Helen Maryles Shankman, is one of the best story collections I’ve ever read, set in the real town of  Włodawa, Poland. As mentioned there are few fictional books set in this part of the world during the Holocaust, and her stories are layered, remarkable, and important and based in part on real historical figures and her own family.

What author has most influenced your own writing?

This may seem odd, but I’d have to say Mark Twain. Hearing his words read aloud in fourth grade are what made me fall in love with story writing. I loved his lyricism and his descriptions of the natural world and his willingness to take on tough cultural topics. It’s a coincidence that his words from Joan of Arc made it to the part openers of my novel, but a happy one, for me.

Many thanks for Tara for participating in this interview! Her newest book is available for purchase 09/15/18, and I cannot recommend it strongly enough. It’s sure to be a well-deserved success.

Read my review of My Real Name is Hanna here.

Purchase links

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | IndieBound

Capture2

Other places to follow me…
Tumblr | Facebook | Instagram | GoodReads

 

Review – Rust & Stardust, by T. Greenwood

36249634
Rust & Stardust
by T. Greenwood

Genre: Historical Fiction

Length: 368 Pages

Release date: August 7, 2018

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Synopsis: 

Camden, NJ, 1948.

When 11 year-old Sally Horner steals a notebook from the local Woolworth’s, she has no way of knowing that 52 year-old Frank LaSalle, fresh out of prison, is watching her, preparing to make his move. Accosting her outside the store, Frank convinces Sally that he’s an FBI agent who can have her arrested in a minute—unless she does as he says.

This chilling novel traces the next two harrowing years as Frank mentally and physically assaults Sally while the two of them travel westward from Camden to San Jose, forever altering not only her life, but the lives of her family, friends, and those she meets along the way.

rating

five

Sally Horner’s tragic ordeal inspired Nabokov’s classic novel, Lolita, but the real story is even more heart-breaking. I must admit that I was hesitant to pick this book up for fear that it would feel exploitative of the young victim of such a heinous crime. However, after seeing one glowing review after another, I decided to give it a chance, and I was pleasantly surprised by this novel.

Capture.PNG

The subject matter obviously invites comparison with Lolita, and I think that draws attention to one of the novel’s greatest strengths: the focus is on the victim rather than the twisted mindset of the perpetrator. Nabokov’s work is an exploration of the depths of darkness; Greenwood’s book places the focus on the victim and feels more inherently respectful. Lolita is not so much about Lolita as it is about Humbert Humbert. Greenwood draws Sally Horner to the center of the narrative, giving her a voice and inviting us to empathize with her and her family.

Florece_Sally_Horner
Florence Sally Horner

The novel maintains what feels like an appropriate distance from the sexual assaults which Sally suffered, generally skipping straight from the instigation to the aftermath. Greenwood refrains from using these events for cheap shock value and instead focuses on Sally’s attempts to process what is happening to her and her longing for home.

Rust and Stardust is told primarily from Sally’s perspective, but has multiple POVs throughout, often capturing the near misses when Sally encounters people who could potentially help her. Over and over, we hear things like, “Someone should do something about that.” These are the most heartbreaking part of the novel, in a lot of ways. Neighbors and teachers get a vague feeling from Sally that something isn’t quite right with her home life, but in the absence of any solid evidence, they feel helpless. These moments are heartbreaking because they are painfully relatable; who among us hasn’t witnessed something that was just enough to give us pause, just enough to leave a niggling sense of uncertainty at the back of our minds? Maybe it’s nothing, but what if…? Sally’s story forces us to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions about what to do in these situations.

On top of Greenwood’s delicate handling of such an ugly subject, Rust and Stardust is simply artistically lovely, with lyrical prose that could have you turning the pages for the pure music of her words. This is emotional and not an easy read, by any means. It will reach into you and wrap cold, unforgiving fingers around your heart, but I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

How sad was it that grief had a shelf life, he thought. It’s only fresh and raw for so long before it begins to spoil. And soon enough, it would be replaced by a newer, brighter heartache – the old one discarded and eventually forgotten.

Purchase links

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | IndieBound

Have you read Rust and Stardust? What were your thoughts?
How do you feel about reading books based on real-life crimes? Does it make a difference when the victim is a child? Discuss in the comments!

Capture2

Other places to follow me…
Tumblr | Facebook | Instagram | GoodReads

Review – The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

32620332
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Genre: Historical Fiction / Contemporary

Length: 388 Pages

Release date: June 13, 2017

Blurb via GoodReads: 

Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. But when she chooses unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant for the job, no one in the journalism community is more astounded than Monique herself. Why her? Why now?

Monique is not exactly on top of the world. Her husband, David, has left her, and her career has stagnated. Regardless of why Evelyn has chosen her to write her biography, Monique is determined to use this opportunity to jumpstart her career.

Summoned to Evelyn’s Upper East Side apartment, Monique listens as Evelyn unfurls her story: from making her way to Los Angeles in the 1950s to her decision to leave show business in the late 80s, and, of course, the seven husbands along the way. As Evelyn’s life unfolds through the decades—revealing a ruthless ambition, an unexpected friendship, and a great forbidden love—Monique begins to feel a very a real connection to the actress. But as Evelyn’s story catches up with the present, it becomes clear that her life intersects with Monique’s own in tragic and irreversible ways.

ratingfive

To say that I loved The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo would be an understatement. This is one of those books that ends leaving you aching for another page, another chapter.

As far as structure, this book can be divided into three separate categories:

  1. First person perspective of Monique, who is struggling with the dissolution of her marriage as she interviews Evelyn Hugo, aging Hollywood darling and ex movie star
  2. First person perspective of Evelyn Hugo as she reveals her life story to Monique
  3. Newspaper/magazine article asides describing various significant events of Evelyn’s life as seen through the limited perspective of the press

This structure is very effective in calling attention to the wide gap between Evelyn’s reality and the constructed version propped up in the press, where rumors are sometimes reported as fact and vice versa. The Evelyn Hugo that exists in the public’s mind bears little resemblance to the Evelyn Hugo that Monique discovers throughout the story.

20180812_142835.jpg

The book touches on a variety of social issues; racial issues are at the forefront early in the novel. Struggling to find her footing in Hollywood, Evelyn Hugo is subjected to a whitewashing makeover reminiscent of Rita Hayworth. With bleach blonde hair and a new last name to sweep her Latina heritage under the rug, the studio hopes to make her more palatable to the masses. While this wasn’t explicitly forced upon her, it’s clear to her that her success to dependent on going along with it. She seems to be okay with this at first, realizing only afterwards how taxing this will prove to be, such as when she struggles to determine whether speaking Spanish in front of her Latina maid is worth the risk of exposure.

This need to hide aspects of her identity foreshadows what is easily the main conflict of the novel. Evelyn spends most of her life in love with another woman and hiding it for the sake of her career and reputation. She is a bisexual character who owns the label “bisexual,” something that is strikingly rare in fiction. She is not an “I don’t like labels” bisexual or an “I went through a phase” bisexual (why straight authors feel the need to write such characters I’ll never understand), she is explicitly bisexual and goes so far as to call out another character for failure to use the correct word. “Don’t ignore half of me so you can fit me into a box. Don’t do that,” she says.

Throughout her rise to fame, Evelyn struggles to reconcile her shame, not of her identity itself but of her own willingness to hide it for the sake of success, with her sense of understanding that she’d probably do it all over again. She is hungry for fame, success, the adoration of the masses, and yes, money.

Reid has constructed a picture of an intensely realistic, flawed, captivating woman. At moments, it’s easy to feel as if you’re reading the memoir of a flesh and blood person. There are intensely fun passages which can feel like getting the inside scoop on real-life Hollywood royalty, but Evelyn’s unflinching honesty about her own personal demons makes the book so much more than that. This was compulsively readable and completely lovely.

Purchase links

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Book Depository | IndieBound

Also by Taylor Jenkins Reid…

Capture2

You can also follow me TumblrFacebook, or GoodReads!