In anticipation of romantic indulgence—and also as diversion from the toxic overconsumption of politics—I read two contemporary “women’s novels,” one by a longtime favorite author who will be a featured author at the May 18 Gaithersburg Book Festival, the other recommended by a reliable Goodreads friend. To my surprise, I was disappointed in the former, Elinor Lipman’s latest, “Good Riddance.” To my delight, I couldn’t put down new-to-me Taylor Jenkins Reid’s 2017 “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.”
Both authors came up with a clever premise, each plot featuring a 30-something, newly divorced heroine who learns surprising and life-changing truths about her past. Both authors are accomplished storytellers.
“Good Riddance” is Massachusetts native and current New York resident Lipman’s 12th novel since 1990. Her first, “Then She Found Me,” was made into a movie starring Helen Hunt and Bette Midler 18 years after it was published. Examples of her more successful romantic comedies include “The Inn at Lake Devine” and “The Dearly Departed.”
In “Good Riddance,” protagonist Daphne Maritch—for no apparent reason—inherits her mother’s copy of a high school yearbook that was dedicated to her as their favorite teacher and yearbook advisor. The late June Winter Maritch, Daphne learned, had attended all the class of 1968 reunions, adding her often-unkind observations to the yearbook photographs. Following Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondõ’s way to determine how to declutter—“ does it spark joy?”—Daphne discards it. Her recycling bin-diving neighbor retrieves it, intending to use it as the basis for the documentary film she plans to make.
Sadly, the clever premise did not pan out in terms of its potential. I found both Daphne and her neighbor Geneva singularly annoying rather than endearingly quirky; in addition, the boy-next-door romance subplot seemed trite, and Daphne’s relationship with her mother’s former student seemed odd in ways I won’t enumerate because it would constitute a spoiler.
It was sad that Daphne’s experience of learning the truth about her parents did not help her find her way beyond an unearned source of income and a cute younger boyfriend. Despite the author’s characteristic good writing and humor, this plot seemed a bit contrived and had loose ends and absurdities; for me, the reading was slow.
In contrast, “The Seven Husbands” entertained me to the nth degree. I reluctantly took breaks, only when forced to attend to real life, and finished it in half the time it took to read “Good Riddance,” which is more than 100 pages longer. Yes, the novel reads like a celebrity tell-all, but it also has interesting characters and makes serious observations about the nature of fame, appearance vs. reality, love, sexism and racism.
Born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Reid grew up in Massachusetts and lives in Los Angeles. She has written six novels since 2013. Her most recent, “Daisy Jones and the Six” (2019), is described as the “story of a ‘70s rock band, led by the beautiful and unpredictable Daisy, whose whirlwind rise and sudden split is one of the greatest in music history—until she and her bandmates reveal what really happened.”
In “The Seven Husbands,” Evelyn Hugo, a 1950s legendary Hollywood movie star—think Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe—opts to reveal the truth about her glamorous career and multiple marriages at age 79. For reasons that are unexplained until late in the novel, Hugo grants these final interviews and the right to write her post-mortem biography to fledgling magazine journalist Monique Grant.
The two women serve as narrators in alternating chapters that also go back and forth in time. During the interview sessions, Hugo relates the story of a somehow savvy young teen who abandons her Cuban heritage and all propriety, intent on creating a perfect Hollywood persona in a cut-throat world.
Hugo’s honesty is painfully intimate, but not for the reasons one might imagine about a Hollywood bombshell who had seven husbands. “People think intimacy is about sex. But intimacy is about truth,” the character said. Her successes and failures as an actress and a woman pale in value to her one true love (no spoiler here either), her one true friend and her beloved daughter.
Hugo’s confessions—regardless of her selfishness and their tawdriness—inspire the reader to forgive her transgressions and hope for a happy ending. As the character said, “No one is just a victim or a victor. Everyone is somewhere in-between. People who go around casting themselves as one or the other are not only kidding themselves, but they are painfully unoriginal.”
The twist at the end—the explanation of how Hugo and her biographer are connected—surprised and satisfied me completely, despite a few earlier-in-the-book clues. Save this one for a perfect day of relaxed reading!