Throughout The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Evelyn struggles to become a star and create and control the public's perception of her while suppressing her true self. From the first moment she sets her sights on Hollywood, Evelyn begins to lie about who she is in order to pursue her dream of being a star. She has sex with men she doesn’t desire and adopts a transactional attitude about sexual relationships. Understanding the inevitability of unwanted male advances, sex and beauty become a currency with which she can purchase the freedom and autonomy that she strives for. She changes her appearance and abandons her native Spanish language in order to match Hollywood’s standards, which require an actress to be beautiful, feminine, and white. She fabricates stories about her personal life to hide her true identity and to avoid—and sometimes purposely create—scandals. These machinations are successful in advancing her career, and throughout Evelyn’s life, the line between on- and off-screen performance is constantly blurred.  

When Evelyn falls for Celia, her ambition to have the career of her dreams comes into conflict with her desire for a fulfilling, honest love life. She realizes that her love for Celia imperils the public image she has carefully crafted, an image which requires her to live up to stereotypes of femininity and conform, or appear to conform, to traditional heterosexuality. Evelyn attempts to protect both Celia and her own career by marrying husbands who she rarely loves, but her performances of romance still feel like real infidelity to Celia, who questions whether the true Evelyn is the starlet in the press or the woman in her bed. As Evelyn grows older, her ability to hide her core identity erodes. She tells her true story to Monique, a journalist at Vivant magazine who is struggling to find major success after more than a decade in the industry. Unbeknownst to Monique, her whole life has been affected by Evelyn’s lies. By telling her story, Evelyn sheds the various costumes she’s worn throughout her life and stands fully revealed to the world. 

The structure of the novel emphasizes the power in Evelyn telling her own story. The novel uses three primary forms: press clippings, first-person sections told from Monique’s point of view, and first-person sections told from Evelyn’s point of view. The press focuses on Evelyn’s appearance and judges her romantic life, illustrating that the lens through which the media sees Evelyn is distorted by stereotypes and conventional morality. Though this image is cocreated by Evelyn, it bares only a glancing relationship to the truth of who she is. The chapters told from Monique’s point of view offer insight into a more personal relationship with Evelyn, as Monique criticizes, admires, and empathizes with Evelyn and her real story. Monique also lends insight into how much damage Evelyn caused by manipulating reality to serve herself. Evelyn’s first-person sections remove the observations and distortions of others and allow Evelyn to tell her story on her own terms.  

Throughout the novel, Evelyn crafts bigger and bigger falsehoods and manipulations to bolster her career. The inciting incident that sets the action of the novel into motion is when Evelyn seduces and marries Ernie for a ride to Hollywood. She tells this story twice, first to encourage Monique to become her biographer and then to begin sharing her life story. Seducing Ernie under false pretenses not only helps Evelyn start her career but also establishes a pattern that repeats throughout her life, wherein Evelyn uses her sexuality and the illusion of romantic commitment to gain power and autonomy. Her divorce from Ernie is as strategic as her marriage to him; she ends their relationship after her movie studio advises her to date famous men instead of being married to a nobody. 

Falling in love with her second husband, Don, appears to grant Evelyn some relief from all this public play-acting. However, when Don starts abusing her, Evelyn must hide the truth from those around her and pretend to have a happy marriage for the public and the press. By covering up her bruises with makeup and covering up her unhappiness with a false story about miscarriages, Evelyn continues to sculpt her image according to what is expected of her, without considering what the façade is costing her.  

Falling in love with Celia interrupts Evelyn’s tendency to perform in every aspect of her life, and Evelyn begins to loosen her grip on her image. Moved by the spontaneity of love, Evelyn kisses the TV screen as Celia wins an Oscar and chips her tooth, marring her picture-perfect image. Later, she grabs Celia’s hand in public in a moment of unpremeditated joy. These slips in her public mask represent an urge to express her natural self. But Evelyn becomes instantly gripped by fear of being outed, and in response, she manufactures a brief, splashy one-day marriage with Mick, manipulating him into both marrying and divorcing her. Though she attempts to protect her relationship with Celia, she ends up destroying it as Celia perceives the false spectacle as a true betrayal. 

The plot develops as Evelyn and Celia get back together. Evelyn and Celia are intimate in the bathroom at the Oscars as Evelyn proves her devotion and shows Celia that she’s willing to risk being outed to be with her. For some time, Celia and Evelyn and Harry and John live together as a happy, unconventional family, able to disguise their sexuality through their marriages. The relationship’s next conflict comes due to Evelyn hiding an on-screen sexual act from Celia. In doing this, Evelyn both withdraws her true self from Celia and again betrays Celia sexually with a man. However, Evelyn’s immediate shame and contrition allow her to move toward a more honest life.  

The novel’s climax arrives when Evelyn frames Monique’s father for a car wreck that Harry caused and that killed both men. She admits this to Monique, and in doing so, she reveals her most devastating lie, a lie that affected how Monique saw her father and his death for her entire life. Revealing this is a great risk for Evelyn, as she knows she might alienate Monique so much that she refuses to tell Evelyn’s life story, there robbing Evelyn of her chance to control her final narrative. But rather than lying to get what she wants, Evelyn tells Monique the truth, and in doing, risks dying without sharing the truth about her own life. 

Because of Evelyn’s confession, Monique gains a more complex picture of who her father is, who she is, and who Evelyn is. She understands that Evelyn and her father both led complex love lives outside of the confines of heterosexuality, and were able to have intimate, passionate relationships even though they often had to hide them. Evelyn is neither the innocent ingenue nor the scheming siren, neither fully good nor wholly bad: she is human. She is a person who strives, sometimes self-servingly, sometimes altruistically, to find the truth within her career and love life. As the action falls, Monique doesn’t spin Evelyn’s final story. Instead, Monique honors Evelyn by telling the whole messy truth of her life just as Evelyn hoped she would.