The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo ~ #JNGReads ~ A New Favourite

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is an absolutely breathtaking novel and it deserves every ounce of hype it has received.

“It strikes me as a unique form of power to say your own name when you know that everyone in the room, everyone in the world, already knows it.”

What can I say about this poignant, powerful, unexpected novel without spoiling it? Barely anything. If I were to even enter into a synopsis of the plot, or comment on the title, or discuss the characters in too much detail, the poignancy, power and unexpectedness of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo would disappear, and the experience of reading it, of getting to know Evelyn and living her life with her, would utterly fade away. And that wouldn’t be fair to you, sweet and innocent reader of this review…so I won’t do that to you. I won’t enter into a long-winded review of this novel like I have so often done for others. I will keep it simple and to the point…but you will have to trust me that you have to pick this book up for yourself to see what’s so special about it.

At its heart, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is about being brave enough to be exactly who you are, without apology. Seems pretty simple, doesn’t it? And yet we all know just how hard it is. True, Evelyn Hugo is a ridiculously famous movie star, so it is particularly hard for her to be exactly who she is while she is constantly under public scrutiny…but don’t we all have a hard time, at one point in our life or another, being truly confident in who we are? Don’t we all, sometimes, worry what other people think, about our appearance, our personality, our life choices, our lover, our job, our sense of style, how we wear our hair or paint our nails or how much we eat or don’t? Don’t we all, as humans, sometimes feel this all-encompassing urge to hide? I think we do, and I think that is the basis for The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo: this notion that it is a fundamental part of human life to be afraid to expose yourself, who you really are, deep down inside, to the world…and yet, it is the single most rewarding and important thing that any human being can do in life.

“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.”

Much kudos is owed to Taylor Jenkins Reid for writing this novel, for a number of reasons. Again, without giving too much away or spoiling anything, in Evelyn Hugo, and in many ways in Monique Grant, the journalist who Evelyn enlists to write her biography, Reid has created incredibly complex, realistic, flawed, complicated and stunningly beautiful (inside AND out) female characters. Evelyn in particular is a character who will stick with me for the rest of my life…but more on that in a second. I really can’t say too much, but suffice it to say that Reid, through Evelyn and Monique, tackles some intense and important topics that society is currently interested in, and she does so with tact, grace and compassion. I was truly impressed by Reid’s writing and her ability to create this character in Evelyn who quite honestly jumps off the page and right into the reader’s heart. I found myself forgetting as I was reading that Evelyn wasn’t a real person because her voice just sounded so genuine. Reid’s use of Evelyn to discuss some really serious topics was touching and so well done that I couldn’t help but feel like a more informed and empathetic woman when I finished reading…and when a work of fiction can achieve something as immense as that, it is truly a masterpiece.

“You wonder what it must be like to be a man, to be so confident that the final say is yours.”

While Celia St. James, Evelyn’s fellow actress and best friend, was probably my favourite character in that she reminded me of myself in many ways, Evelyn was a character who blew me away and who I will carry with me. I found myself thinking multiple times while reading that I wish I had an Evelyn in my life: she is fearless, strong, driven and willing to do whatever is necessary first to advance her career, and later to protect her family. In her initial interactions with Monique, when she is pushing her to be braver professionally and go after the career goals she has always hoped to achieve, I found myself realizing that I could use a mentor like Evelyn, from a professional standpoint. This isn’t to say that I lack direction when it comes to my career – quite the contrary, I feel like I know exactly where I want to go, but I am sometimes too meek and shy to go after this future I’ve envisioned for myself. Evelyn would say this is wrong…she would urge me to value myself highly enough that I have no choice but to demand what I know I deserve. She would tell me to speak up, to make myself heard, and she would remind me that I have no greater ally or stronger advocate in life than myself. I needed a role model and example like Evelyn at this moment in my life, and although I wouldn’t make all of the same choices as her, I do believe I will take pieces of her ferocious and feisty personality with me in my own daily interactions.

“Why, until this moment, did I not realize that the issue is my own confidence? That the root of most of my problems is that I need to be secure enough in who I am to tell anyone who doesn’t like it to go fuck themselves? Why have I spent so long settling for less when I know damn well the world expects more?”

This novel is a good one…it is one of the best I’ve read in a long time. Again, I have to congratulate Taylor Jenkins Reid on writing a novel that is so profound and hard-hitting, because, I am sorry to say didn’t think she had it in her. I’ve read several of Reid’s novels, and although I liked every one, they were fluffy and light romances and not much more. They were unique in many ways, but they weren’t anything groundbreaking in that they didn’t teach me any lasting lessons. I have to say, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo did teach me a great deal about what it means to be confident, about what it means to be free to love and live your life to the fullest. I am really very glad I read it, and I would HIGHLY recommend it to anyone and everyone!

❥❥❥❥❥ (out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

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The Book Thief ~ #JNGReads

Here I am, reading another book that I feel utterly unqualified to review. This one I mostly read, and just now finished, on days when I’ve been battling a horrible flu, so forgive me for any incoherency in this review. That being said, I feel that it was almost fitting that I read this novel during a period of sickness, when I was on the verge of hallucination and could almost walk alongside the narrator through the scenes he described.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is a novel I wish I had read in high school. This is not to say that it is juvenile in any manner – quite the contrary – but what I mean by saying this is that The Book Thief feels to me like the sort of story that should be experienced by students very early on in their educations. It would’ve been oh so fitting for me to delve into this particular novel during my grade 10 History class, when I first properly learned what the Holocaust was and what that term meant, and I wish I had thought to pick up The Book Thief around the same time I read The Diary of Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel’s Night. The reason that I wish I had been exposed to the story contained in The Book Thief at a time when I was learning all about Hitler’s reign, genocide and World War II is that The Book Thief takes an approach to discussing the Holocaust that is unlike any I have previously encountered.

Of course, Zusak’s story details the wrongful persecution of the Jews living in Germany and many other countries in Europe during Hitler’s reign. Through the character of Max Vandenburg and many other nameless Jewish people, Zusak offers a heart-wrenching depiction of what it meant to be Jewish in Nazi-occupied Germany, of what it meant to hate Hitler, to feel unjustifiably condemned by him, and to live your life secluded in a dark basement for years on end. There are allusions to the grotesque concentration camps and to the suffering of 6 million innocent people. There are references made to the intense hatred and anguish that these innocent people felt toward a man who chose to call himself “leader”, and who was blindly followed. There are certainly moments of horror.

But, what Zusak also chooses to do in The Book Thief, and what I thoroughly appreciated from my role of reader, was emphasize the suffering and turmoil of many innocent German people, those citizens who equally despised Hitler, who were similarly condemned by him, and who met their own tragic ends. Zusak chronicles the life of a German girl, Liesel Meminger, and her relationship with her German foster parents and her German best friend, all the while highlighting the fact that these characters despise Hitler, yet feel powerless to stop or combat him. Certainly Liesel’s foster parents do their best to fight the Nazi regime, particularly by taking Jewish man Max Vandenburg into their basement and harbouring him safely there. However, when Liesel’s foster parents, and her best friend Rudy and his parents, attempt to stand up to the Nazi regime in any meaningful way, they are also persecuted, whipped, beaten, sent away from their families. Although it is made clear many times in the narration of The Book Thief (more on the particular narrative style in a moment) that Liesel and her family members and friends will never suffer in the same horrific way as the Jewish people, they also face their own tragedies and awful, painful deaths. There is no optimism in this tale, and yet the reader is made to understand that Nazi-occupied Germany was Hell not only for the Jews who lived there, but also for the quiet, unsuspecting German people who wanted nothing to do with Hitler and his bigotry and prejudice.

“[Liesel] wondered how many letters like that were sent out as punishment to Germany’s Hans Hubermanns and Alex Steiners – to those who helped the helpless, and those who refused to let go of their children.”

“‘When they come and ask you for one of your children,’ Barbara Steiner explained, to no one in particular, ‘you’re supposed to say yes.’”

Personally, I can’t say I ever gave much thought to what it would feel like to be a German citizen living during World War II. I have, on numerous occasions, read novels that made me empathize and sympathize with the Jewish people who were oppressed, but I never took the time to think about how it would feel to be an innocent German citizen, one who loves and has a kind and gentle heart and must watch as their country is made into a living Hell for so many people. There must have been so much shame and disgrace and desperation in that, and I truly appreciated that The Book Thief offered me the chance to get into the minds of some of these German citizens, to realize just how hard it was for them to witness what their “leader” was doing, how hard that must’ve been to stomach. It also made me question myself and my own convictions: would I have had the courage to open my home to some of the Jewish people, like Hans Hubermann did? If I was a child at the time, would I have been able, like Liesel, to become friends with a Jewish man and risk my life just to say Goodbye to him and hold his hand one last time? Like Rudy Steiner, would I choose to skip my Hitler Youth classes and defy the doctrines and regulations of the time, risking being whipped and beaten and persecuted? I will never ever know, and it is a serious privilege to not have to consider these questions because of the dumb luck of being born in a different time. The Book Thief challenged my perceptions and assumptions, however; it forced me to sit down and think about the people whose perspectives I hadn’t previously considered, and for that reason, it was a highly educational, life-altering and poignant read. This is why I would recommend that any and all high school students read this novel, while learning about the destruction of World War II.

Apart from being a profound and influential text, The Book Thief is also very well written. I don’t know if this is a spoiler (forgive me, but I don’t think it is since you learn about this on page 1) but Zusak chooses Death as his narrator for the story, and in my opinion, this was a perfect choice. Zusak’s Death is much less sinister and horror movie-esque than one would expect, and Death actually tells the tale of Liesel and her loved ones with such sentimentality and feeling that it is impossible not to be drawn to him as a narrator. I found myself empathizing with Death in many ways, as he described having to take away the souls of so many innocent people during World War II. Death is a sympathetic and tortured character in The Book Thief, and it is clear from the start that he hates his job, hates Hitler, hates war and wants nothing at all to do with suffering. It is really interesting to view the events of the Holocaust from this perspective, to see the endless pain and agonizing devastation from the viewpoint of an omniscient narrator who is at once complicit in the tragedy but wishes he could be removed from it. Death speaks of Liesel so lovingly that it is hard not to feel sorry for him, it is hard not to wish that he could be exempt from his job, particularly in the moments when it affects Liesel the most. I’m struggling to remember if I’ve ever read a novel narrated by Death before (I feel like I must have, but it escapes me at the moment), but regardless, I can confidently say that Zusak does an excellent job of using Death’s narration as this means to toy with his readers’ emotions and force them to look at the concept of death itself from a totally new vantage point.

I hope some aspects, at least, of this review made sense, but as I said, my reading of The Book Thief was a rather hallucinatory experience. Whether that is because I was feeling sick or because the novel is written in such a hard-hitting, unrestrained manner is hard to say. It seems that Zusak wants to hit right at the reader’s heart, and yes, mine has been weakened recently due to cold and fever…but I have a feeling that even if I was at my strongest, The Book Thief would’ve penetrated right to the depths of my human soul nevertheless.

“I have hated the words and

I have loved them,

and I hope I have made them right.”

❥❥❥❥ (out of 5)

*Although this novel does deal with very mature themes and is vulgar at times, I highly recommend that it be read by high school students everywhere!

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart

The White Queen – #JNGReads

The White Queen by Philippa Gregory is a novel that I am quite confused about and am finding difficult to review. This is partly because I don’t even know that it should be classified as a novel, and the writing style and structure doesn’t really fit exactly within my knowledge of the genre of historical fiction.

I picked up The White Queen because of my eagerness to read another novel in the series it is part of, The White Princess. I recently came across photos for the new TV series based on The White Princess, and I immediately wanted to watch it, but I knew that it would be a better idea to read the book first. I then remembered wanting to watch the series The White Queen as well, and since I knew that it was also based on one of Gregory’s novels, I decided to read it first, watch The White Queen, and then move onto the story of her daughter, the White Princess.

Well, after finishing The White Queen, I am still eager to watch the TV adaptation and read The White Princess, but I do have to admit that The White Queen was not written at all how I expected it to be. My only other experience of Gregory’s writing was in reading her more famous book The Other Boleyn Girl, as well as The Virgin’s Lover, which comes a few books after the story of the Boleyn sisters. I read both of those novels when I was in high school, and I remember enjoying them immensely. I’ve always liked historical fiction, both when it comes to literature and to other types of media like movies and TV, and I do know that I enjoyed The Other Boleyn Girl and The Virgin’s Lover very much because they were addictive and highly entertaining and transported me straight to regal England. The descriptions and scenes were vivid and detailed, and I felt immersed in the lives of the characters. I know that much of Gregory’s storylines and the interactions between her characters were fictionalized, but I also felt like I achieved a better understanding of the time period she wrote of and I actually did feel like I learned many things about the history of England and some of its most famous monarchs. Amidst all of that though, I did grow attached to the characters, their struggles and anxieties in trying to maintain power and authority, and I felt as though I had an invested interest in their lives and their tragedies and triumphs.

With The White Queen, things were a bit different, and I feel that all I received really was a history lesson. This is largely due to how the novel is written. In The White Queen, Gregory adopts a style where she basically summarizes a great deal of information into not so many pages. I honestly don’t think there was even much dialogue in The White Queen, and when there was, it was incredibly simplistic, to the point and often very dry. (Sidenote: I will say that the last quarter of the novel featured much more dialogue, and the conversations between The White Queen and her daughter Elizabeth, the future White Princess, were quite tense and interesting – but I don’t know that they made up for the lack of dialogue and connection between the characters in the first three quarters of the novel.) Gregory does a great job of running through the events of Queen Elizabeth Woodville’s reign and marriage to King Edward, but it is unclear why she even chose Elizabeth to narrate the story because there is nothing unique or outstanding about Elizabeth’s voice. At times, it felt as though I was reading a history textbook, devoid of bias or personal interest, and this just didn’t seem to jive with the fact that Elizabeth does in fact have a distinct role and influence in her husband’s reign. At the same time that the story was written in textbook style, however, it was also missing any concrete facts or hard-hitting details; Gregory glossed over a lot of gritty, nuanced historical information, and instead summarized battles and feuds in a handful of pages or less. She does cover a remarkable number of years in her story, but there isn’t any real character development throughout because we never really get to hear her character’s speak or see them in action. Instead, it is almost as if we are being told a story in conversation, as if anecdotes and events are being recounted to us without depth or any real insight into the causes and factors behind and surrounding them.

I have also read several reviews on Goodreads in which fellow readers said that they found The White Queen to be very repetitive, and I definitely have to agree with that assessment. Certain phrases were repeated, verbatim, within mere pages, and Gregory mentioned characters’ titles constantly, almost as if she needed to remind the reader every time a person was mentioned, who exactly they were. The main characters appear so frequently, though, and the novel is only just over 400 pages long, so I found it very unnecessary to read that George was the Duke of Clarence or Thomas was Elizabeth’s Grey son on every other page. It just made my reading experience that much more tedious. Gregory also goes so far as to repeat ideas over and over, particularly when Elizabeth is reflecting on the politics of her husband’s reign and her royal position. It is almost as though we are witness to the constant obsessing that Elizabeth does, but because she never adds anything new to her reflections, this is more frustrating than insightful. However, despite all the repetition (which I sort of think is just be evidence of lazy writing), Gregory’s tale does flow very nicely, and once you get into the hang of reading it, it is very easy to get through many pages in one sitting. It’s somewhat of a strange paradox when you think about it, and perhaps the fact that Gregory’s writing is so repetitive makes it that much less complicated and easier to blast through rapidly. Who knows?

The thing that makes it so difficult to review The White Queen, though, is that I still found it really interesting and enjoyed reading it, in spite of its many flaws. It was definitely frustrating to get so little information about specific characters and to feel as though historical details were being diluted and washed over, while at the same time having some phrases and ideas incessantly repeated, but I still did find myself entertained as I read. It’s true that I didn’t have any strong emotional connection to any one character, but I certainly wasn’t dreading reading more of the book, and on the contrary, I found that when I did have a moment to sit down and read it, I got through many pages quite quickly because of the smooth and fluid style.

The best I can say, I guess, is that The White Queen is an average novel. It certainly wasn’t what I expected, especially because I remembered Gregory’s style to be more rich and opulent. But, I do think it will make an incredible TV series because there is so much subject matter to be treated and there are so many dialogues I can imagine coming out of scenes that Gregory somewhat flitted past. I’ll certainly be interested to watch The White Queen, and I do still intend to read The White Princess to see if Gregory perhaps developed a more detailed style and a knack for getting inside the minds of these particular characters later in the series.

❥❥❥ (out of 5)

JNG

Girl with a Green Heart