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The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo: Consider the Framing

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51hcBK1TlWL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgIt seems like a sure thing, right? The fictional memoir of a scandalous, salacious, and ruthless Hollywood superstar couldn't help but be a bestseller, even if the titular character is invented. Filled with mansions, parties, fine wines, fancy foods, and enough big reveals to fill a year's worth of People Magazine, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was destined for the same greatness as its star character.

Or was it?

Obviously it's pointless to speculate about whether or not a book would be successful without a core aspect of its nature. But I believe that the thing that launched this fascinating read onto all the bestseller lists wasn't the glimpse into Old Hollywood or the strong feminist message (including certain progressive representation I won't go into for fear of spoilers) or even the voyeuristic allure of seeing into the lives of the rich and the famous. Yes, the story of Evelyn Hugo's life is a fascinating fabrication.

However, I strongly suspect that what really catapults this good novel into the realm of phenomenon is the framing device.

The story isn't just a straight-up fictional memoir. It's told through the eyes of Monique Grant, a struggling, barely-successful journalist going through her first divorce who is critically lacking in confidence and pizazz. When Monique is plucked out of obscurity to write Evelyn's biography, seemingly for no reason, Monique is floored. She's starstruck and awed and unsure, but quickly learns that she must seize what she wants or else watch it pass her by. Monique's character arc is as important, if not more so, than Evelyn Hugo's.

Which is exactly as it should be.

Where Evelyn Hugo is the larger-than-life personality that breathes energy into the narrative, that hooks us in with the sheer audacity of her decisions, Monique is us. She's normal, humdrum, and craving more. Monique is the character the reader can sympathize with, dazzled by Evelyn's greatness and, eventually, shocked by Evelyn's truth. Evelyn is the person we want to be, but Monique is the person we are, and traveling through Evelyn's story with Monique as our guide allows the common, everyday reader to find a piece of themselves in a story that would otherwise feel distant and alien.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was an incredibly fun, addictive read. Like thousands of other people, I was engrossed in the story of this super-celebrity and her life of hidden secrets. I cried for her tragedies, rejoiced in her victories, and learned along with her that fame isn't everything and love is more important than any possession. But it was Monique I really bonded to, Monique I felt sympathy for. Evelyn Hugo was a done character by the beginning of the book. Her change was all in retrospect, all hearsay. But I got to experience the journalist changing in real time, growing her strength even as she records Evelyn's.

If you're writing a tricky book, perhaps about a larger-than-life character, then think about how you can frame the story in a sympathetic way. Superman needs Lois Lane to humanize the story. Sherlock needs Watson. We love to read about insanely talented, brave, or clever characters, but remember that the average reader can't connect with them. Most of us don't see ourselves as uber-amazing superhumans. We're just people, and therefore need a person to draw us into the incredible. Fiction is all about placing ourselves in the narrative.

So be sure to give the reader a way to do that.

Have you read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo? What did you think about the framing device? Let us know in the comments!

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