Scandal and Glamour in Old Hollywood

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Tara Jenkins Reid

The cover of the book The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by author Taylor Jenkins Reid to accompany the book review by The Reading Edit on the same page. Cover image features a blonde woman wearing a green gown with a pearl necklace set against a rich red background.

Ageing Hollywood icon, Evelyn Hugo, is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. When she personally selects unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant to write her life story, no one is more surprised than Monique herself.

Evelyn Hugo’s life as an actress and Hollywood icon through the 50s, 60s and 70s, has been a string of scandals, marriages and divorces. It’s sure to be one hell of a story and Monique is determined that this opportunity will be the one that jump starts her career. After all, she didn’t choose to stay in Los Angeles while her husband moved to New York so she could stay on the editing desk at Vivant magazine forever. But as Evelyn’s story nears its end, it becomes clear exactly why Ms Hugo sought out this unknown writer, as the lives of the two women intersect in tragic and irreversible ways.

Set in Los Angeles and steeped in old Hollywood glamour, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is everything we love about the lives of the rich and famous. It’s gossipy, scandalous, sexy and has a surprising twist. This makes the story sound frivolous, but in terms of storytelling, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is no lightweight. It weaves themes of ambition and success, love and friendship, loyalty and betrayal. Evelyn herself is glamorous, sultry, ambitious and formidable. One cannot help but be seduced by the famous Ms Hugo. Her seven husbands were only ever extras in the story of her extraordinary life.

Me, I’ve always gone after what I wanted with everything in me. Others fall into happiness. Sometimes I wish I was like them. I’m sure sometimes they wish they were like me.

Evelyn, page 344

I loved how the story was interspersed with news, tabloid and blog articles to give the reader a perspective of Evelyn from the outside world at that particular time. I also loved how each section of the book devoted to a particular husband opens with an illustrative moniker, such as ‘Poor Ernie Diaz‘, ‘Goddamn Don Adler‘ and ‘Gullible Mick Riva‘. It really set the tone for the character of that particular husband that was to follow.

I hope they make this book into a movie! It would be stunning on screen – from Evelyn’s early years growing up poor in New York, through her successful years as a famous Hollywood actress in the 50s, 60s and 70s, the marriages, the love affairs, the celebrity, all set against a backdrop of Old Hollywood glamour and an enthralling tale of what one woman was prepared to do and the sacrifices she would make to ensure the longevity of her own success.

Published 2018 by Simon & Schuster, 385 pages.

Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason

Cover of the book Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason to accompany the book review by The Reading Edit on the same page. Cover image features a woman wearing an apricot colored dress lying on her back on a green couch. Her head is hanging over one arm of the couch with her hands placed over her head. Cover is the same green as the couch.

Sorrow and Bliss is the story of a woman called Martha. As described on the back of the book, ‘It is sad and funny’ and so much more.

The story is narrated in the aftermath of Martha’s separation from her husband, as she reflects on her life, trying to better understand it and herself. For Martha has always known there is something wrong with her, she just doesn’t know what it is. Martha is a vivacious and intelligent character and her narration is laced with acerbic wit that makes the story so endearing and very funny.

But at the heart of the novel is the crushing mental illness that Martha has lived with since childhood. At age 17, she has a complete breakdown and spends the summer in her father’s study. Even when Martha is well, her fear and anticipation of a recurrence is never far from mind and, more importantly, she lives with information a doctor told her at one of the many interventions during her teenage years: that falling pregnant while on the medication would not be safe for a developing baby. Because of this, from a young age, Martha has convinced herself that she doesn’t want children, despite her adoration and desire to have them.

Over the years, Martha tries to manage her condition through varying diagnoses and prescriptions, but ultimately believes she is just bad at being a person. Her eventual full and correct diagnosis brings clarity, understanding and anger. The fallout from this revelation is utterly absorbing, heartbreaking and sad, as Martha finally navigates her way to uncovering who she really is and admitting what is important to her.

I loved how the story is told through a series of linked vignettes on Martha’s life, from childhood, through to her early 40s. Each of these vignettes typically give a short description of what happened, laced with witty asides, and is then finished with a final crucial line to hint at the wider tragedy of that particular anecdote.

The story is set in London and Oxford (with a short time spent in Paris), giving it a quirky Notting Hill vibe.

There are so many great characters in this novel. Martha has been fortunate to grow up surrounded by people who care, support and love her, including her family (both immediate and extended) and a much-loved work colleague. She has a strong bond with her sister Ingrid, so strong that others describe it as a ‘force-field’. Their father, an aspiring poet, is dependable, strong and kind. Their mother is largely absent, devoting her time to creating sculptures out of repurposed materials in the garden shed and prone to throwing huge parties at their Goldhawk Road flat. (I loved that Martha grew up on Goldhawk Road. It’s the same road I lived on when I lived in London. But ‘Sorrow and Bliss’ isn’t the story of 12 expats living together in a three bedroom flat in Shepherd’s Bush. Back to Martha.) Her Aunt Winsome hosts Christmas every year in her central London home. One year, Martha’s cousin brings his friend, Patrick, home to celebrate Christmas with the family, after Patrick’s own family neglect to book him a flight home from boarding school. This begins a tradition whereby Patrick joins them for Christmas every year, becoming a welcome addition to the extended family.

What is really liberating about this story is that Martha’s illness is never named, even once she receives a diagnosis. In her writing, Mason simply refers to it as ‘— —’. Despite this being somewhat of a frustration for the reader who is well and truly invested in Martha by the time of her diagnosis, by refusing to label her condition, the author removes the medical prognosis and any preconceived notions of a particular condition. After all, the name itself is not important. What is important is Martha’s ability to finally understand and know herself, and to see herself for who she really is after decades of that being compromised by false information and advice from doctors, by loved ones who have turned the other way, and by her own fear of what besets her.

So much of Sorrow and Bliss is about Martha trying to reimagine her past and the person that she is, and to redeem the hurt and loss at its centre. It is tender, sad, heartbreaking and funny throughout, thanks to the author’s sharp writing and intelligent wit. It is a revealing look at family, relationships and navigating life with serious mental health challenges. Finally, it’s about finding yourself and starting again from nothing, if you can find something else to want.

Published in 2020 by HarperCollins Publishers; 341 pages.

A Story to Devour Like A Delicious Bowl of Pho

The Coconut Children by Vivian Pham

Image of the cover of the book The Coconut Children by Vivian Pham to accompany the book review by The Reading Edit on the same page. Cover image features lots of incense smoke swirls in pink against a grey background.

The Coconut Children is the story of two teenagers, Sonny and Vince, growing up in Cabramatta, south-western Sydney in the late 90s. Both are first generation Australians from refugee Vietnamese families. Sonny is quiet and lives with her family, including her perpetually inebriated grandmother and her volatile mother. Vince became a bit of a legend around Cabramatta after he was hauled off to juvenile detention when he was 14.

Sonny and Vince are neighbours and as children, they were very close. Now that Vince is back from his two year stint in juvie, Sonny watches on with interest as he steps back into life in the ‘burbs.

‘Since he had been taken away, it seemed a mist had settled over Cabramatta and their suburb had gone to sleep. The world was only awake when Vince was there to see it.’

Sonny (page 4)

In The Coconut Children, I loved the way author Vivian Pham portrays life for migrant and refugee families who arrived in Sydney from the late 70s. Trying to establish a new life in neighbourhoods troubled with gangs, violence, drugs and socio-economic hardship. But this is just the backdrop to the story. The Coconut Children is a moving, funny and sharp observation on community, family, love and loyalty.

I also loved the nods to Vietnamese culture throughout the book – Sonny’s mother always in the kitchen, cooking; her father tending to their garden filled with Vietnamese herbs, fruits and vegetables; the untranslated Vietnamese language filtered throughout the book. Most of all, I loved the way in which the author nails the balance between emotion and humour throughout the story. For her to achieve this at just 19 years of age, as a debut novelist is extraordinary.

Like Sonny, author Vivian Pham is a first generation Australian from a refugee Vietnamese family. 

Her father fled Vietnam at age 17 and made the dangerous journey by boat when, after 10 days at sea, it had run out of gasoline and was drifting with barely any food on board. The boat finally hit a coral reef and all passengers were forced to flee to safety on a nearby deserted Indonesian island. During the journey, their small boat was raided by pirates several times, leaving dark physical and emotional scars on the men, women and children on board. They lived on coconuts and fish for three months before finally being rescued by Indonesian officials and being taken to a refugee camp where he spent the next 12 months before finally being granted entry to the United States. You can read more on Vivian Pham’s family story here.

The stories her father shared with his daughter from this time is largely what inspired her writing. As Pham notes about her father in the back of the book, “…she grew up writing stories because she knew there was one stuck inside of him.” So, whilst The Coconut Children isn’t biographical, it is very much inspired by both her own upbringing in Sefton, Western Sydney and her father’s stories as a refugee.

When Vivian was 16, she joined a novella writing program run by a not-for-profit creative writing centre for marginalized young people in Redfern. Instead of writing short, she handed in 90,000 words – the first draft of The Coconut Children. A senior editor at Penguin Random House was a volunteer on the program and was assigned to work with Vivian on her story. He read the first page and was stunned. Her draft soon found it’s way to a Sydney literary agent who quickly realized it’s potential and took the manuscript to auction. Every publishing house that saw it, bid for it and in 2018, when she was just 17 years of age, Vivian signed a contract with Penguin Random House.

Now a third-year Arts student, majoring in philosophy and minoring in creative writing, The Coconut Children is no fluke. Vivian Pham is intelligent, funny and keenly observant. You can read more about Vivian Pham’s writing journey thus far here.

The Coconut Children is warm, funny, tender, and wise. It’s about not just what it means to be an immigrant, but what it means to be the child of a refugee and the responsibility of carrying that legacy and those stories with you, even though they aren’t directly your own.

Vivian Pham has been described as a ‘voice of her generation’ (Stephanie Wood, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Feb 2020). If you do decide to read The Coconut Children, I hope, like me, you will devour it like a big, delicious bowl of Pho.

The Coconut Children scores 5 coconuts out of 5.

The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth

Cover of the book The Good Sister by author Sally Hepworth featuring a pink paper cut out of two sisters holding a bunch of flowers against a bright blue background. Image is to accompany the book review by The Reading Edit on the same page.

Australian author, Sally Hepworth, brings us her sixth book just in time for the summer holidays. ‘The Good Sister’ is the perfect holiday read with a captivating story, a cracking pace, lovable characters, humour, suspense, plenty of twists, drama and a satisfying ending.

The story revolves around twin sisters, Rose and Fern, and alternates between each of their perspectives and between their childhood and the present.

Fern is portrayed so wonderfully, I loved her right from the start. She is a librarian and loves her job at the local library. She avoids loud noises, bright lights, crowds and anyone looking for help with the photocopier. Fern’s interactions with library visitors and staff are delightful and bring much warmth and humour to the story. She has dinner three nights a week with her twin sister, Rose.

Rose has always looked out for Fern and protected her. The sisters are very close, bound together as twins and by shared secrets from their childhood. Early in the book, the reader learns that there was a tragic event that occurred when the girls were 12. As a result, Fern has never been able to fully trust herself, often questioning her memory and doubting her capabilities. Fern relies on Rose, just as she does her strict daily routine.

Rose is married, however her husband has recently left her and she remains desperate to have a baby. Fern sees this as an opportunity to repay Rose for all that she has done for her, however unforeseen events soon threaten to disrupt Fern’s carefully structured life and reveal deep secrets from their past.

‘The Good Sister‘ is a compelling story of family, love and the ties that bind us. It is part mystery, part romance, part thriller and part domestic drama. There are a lot of elements to this story, but the author weaves them all together so seamlessly and by doing so, creates a story that is highly engaging and addictive. This was my first Sally Hepworth novel. I enjoyed it so much, it definitely won’t be my last.

Published 2020 by Pan Macmillan Australia; 328 pages.

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started