52 men review

52 Men: A Review

52 MenDespite frequent warnings from English professors to never conflate the author with the narrator, the situations in which readers may actually make that mistake seldom seem to crop up. But beware Louise Wareham Leonard‘s 52 Men. It’s all too easy to mistake author Louise for narrator Elise, and vice versa.

In its opening, 52 Men proclaims that it “is a work of memory and imagination; stories, actions, and events have been changed to protect the living.” Although I’m inclined to sort the book with well-honed fiction instead of memoir, the book works either way.

The minor confusion of Louise/Elise doesn’t detract from 52 Men. In fact, it makes the experience of reading Leonard’s short fiction collection all the more memorable. The 52 chapters in the first part of the book are journal entries — some mild, some frantic, but all wholly authentic. Elise’s voice is so genuine that the tendency to question just how fictitious 52 Men is stands as a testament to Leonard’s talent as a writer.

Those first 52 chapters range from laugh-out-loud funny, to ironic, to forlorn, to cynical. Some you want to skip, and others you’ll read over and over again until you’ve cleaned their bones. They are the stories you’d expect to hear from your closest friends, if you asked them about the men who had brightened their lives and darkened their doorsteps. Narrator Elise begins to feel like one of your old friends: the one who never had her shit together. You know, if your friend dated Jonathan Franzen.

Those who suspect that 52 Men will feel disjointed shouldn’t worry. Leonard’s collection ends with a piece of short fiction that provides insight into all that has come before it. It’s poignant, bitter, and complicated — just like all of us are. This dense little collection is rich soul food, even if it isn’t particularly uplifting.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a copy of this book from Red Hen Press in exchange for this review. 

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Image: Jeroen Bennink/flickr