Illustration by Ben Beechener
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid.
“Heartbreak is a loss. Divorce is a piece of paper.” So says Evelyn Hugo, the unforgettable heroine of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. Perhaps the biggest book of the summer, this novel tells the tale of ageing Hollywood icon Evelyn Hugo, who at the age of 79, decides to spill the truth about her turbulent life. Her unlikely autobiographer? Monique Grant, an unknown magazine reporter, seemingly plucked from obscurity.
Evelyn is more than just a movie star: ambitious, enigmatic, ruthless; complicated doesn’t even begin to cover it. With Hugo, Taylor Jenkins Reid creates a compelling and subversive character, and not one entirely founded on fiction. Plucking inspiration from the equally glamorous and scandalous lives of Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardener, as well Rita Hayworth, in addition to affirming that real life often is stranger than fiction, Jenkins Reid adds a certain plausibility to Evelyn’s story. Interspersing Evelyn’s narration with flashbacks, interviews, and media clippings, alongside Monique’s own personal struggles, the story is kept fresh even as it spans decades. Jenkins Reid satisfies what Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood failed to do. Whereas the latter has been described as ‘a hollow ode to showbiz’. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo successfully conjures up the magic of Old Hollywood, while also exploring vital questions about sexuality, ambition and the price of success. Though I found Taylor Jenkins Reid’s other novel, Daisy Jones and the Six, to be more of a page-turner, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is not one to be missed.
Educated by Tara Westover
Recommended to me last year, Educated has been on my to-be-read pile for an embarrassingly long time. If you’re in the same situation, take my advice: read this book! Tara Westover’s memoir recounts her highly unconventional upbringing by Mormon fundamentalist parents in Idaho. The youngest of seven children, what happens to Tara and her family – in particular, a whole host of freak accidents – is too strange to be believed, were the book not non-fiction. Hinted at by its title, Educated closely follows Tara’s attempts to secure a better life for herself through schooling. With her birth going unregistered until the age of 9, never receiving any formal education, nor much homeschooling either, to say that she faced many challenges is an understatement. Tara’s story, as well as being wonderfully written, is utterly incredible. An inspirational story of perseverance, you won’t believe where she ends up. You’ve never read an autobiography quite like this.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
A fairly rogue summer read, I picked this up on the recommendation of my mum. With Wuthering Heights the only Brontë novel I’d read before, I was unsure of what to expect from Charlotte’s sister, Anne. Safe to say I was not disappointed. The novel is framed as a series of letters from Gilbert Markham to his friend, where he recounts the mysterious events surrounding the arrival of Helen Graham, the eponymous tenant of the long-abandoned Wildfell Hall. Mrs Graham is a young and beautiful widow, and contrary to the 19th century norms, makes her living as an artist. Isolating herself and her young son from the village, Mrs Graham’s mysterious past provokes suspicion and accusation of scandal. Determined to befriend her and get to the truth of the matter, Gilbert’s life becomes infinitely more complicated. Heralded by most critics today as one of the first feminist novels, I was completely taken aback by how much I enjoyed this book (a lot more than I did Wuthering Heights). Reading this on a rather long cross-country train journey, any other book might have struggled to keep my attention. Not this one. If you like Daphne du Maurier, then I guarantee that you’ll enjoy The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Given that Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017, I had high expectations for Klara and the Sun. Though not the best book that I read this summer, it’s still one that I’d highly recommend. Innovative as ever, Ishiguro tells the tale of Klara, an Artificial Friend (AF), who narrates her life as she moves from an AF store to the home of 14-year old Josie. Gravely ill, Josie relies on Klara for companionship and support. Klara’s genuine affection for Josie, and the naive but poignant efforts she makes to help Josie (spoiler alert: it involves the Sun), were real standout moments in the book. The novel was, at times, deeply affecting – the ending most of all. In Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro poses to the reader key and increasingly relevant questions about Artificial Intelligence, our relationship to technology, and what it means to be human. While I found it to be an easier read than Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, it was not as groundbreaking as Never Let Me Go, one of his most famous novels. Klara and the Sun has a great concept, but the execution – in particular the vagueness surrounding what being “lifted” meant for the main human characters – could have been better.
The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper
Now I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but as covers go, The Wolf Den’s is pretty outstanding. Opulent in orange, the silhouettes of its central women are illuminated against the backdrop of a starry night, each cordoned off in their own stone archway. The latter does a good job hinting at the subjugation of women by a patriarchal society, one of the central themes explored in the book. The Wolf Den follows Amara, formerly a free woman valued by loving parents, misfortune has now led her to be enslaved in Pompeii’s brothel. Although living an incredibly difficult existence, Amara dares to seek freedom, reclaiming her sexuality and feminine powers. This book does contain sexual violence, however it also shines a spotlight on the power of female friendship. As bleak as Amara’s story sometimes appears, the comfort that she finds in the laughter and dreams she shares with her friends is a highlight. Exploring questions like the cost of freedom, Harper interweaves extracts of Latin prose and poetry in translation to make her text incredibly immersive. Recently released in paperback, The Wolf Den is the first in a trilogy of novels reimagining the lives of women who have long been overlooked.
Of all the books that I’ve read this summer, it’s difficult to choose a favourite. Hugely anticipated reads like The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Klara and the Sun, while still worth checking out, are not the books that I’ll remember as much as others. Rather, my summer has been defined by The Wolf Den, given to me as a birthday present at the end of Trinity; by The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, enjoyed on the long journey to Cornwall to see a friend; by Educated, which filled me with motivation as I look towards the future, and my final year at Oxford. These are the books which memorialised my summer.