Bookshots: '52 Men' by Louise Wareham Leonard
Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review
Who wrote it?
Louise Wareham Leonard, author of Since You Ask and Miss Me A Lot Of.
Plot in a box:
A privileged white girl remembers all of the men who've ever been madly in love with her in microfictive bursts.
Invent a new title for this book:
No, You Don't Understand, It's a Burden
Read this if you liked:
Pretty much any beach-read bestseller that's "moving" or "haunting" or whatever the kids are calling completely unoriginal themes these days
Meet the book's lead(s):
Elise McKnight, a poet and traveler (seriously, I don't think a job is ever mentioned) recounting her interactions with the 52 men she's loved or who have loved her.
Said lead(s) would be portrayed in a movie by:
Blake Lively, or maybe Robin Wright in the later years.
Setting: Would you want to live there?
It's mostly too-trendy-to-fucking-stand NYC, so no, absolutely not.
What was your favorite sentence?
This was tough. There were so many.
Thor breaks my heart. He breaks it and breaks it some more. "You broke my heart," he says, "so I broke yours."
Richard is a student at the School of Visual Arts. I pass him one day, on my way from the subway station, across 23rd Street toward the East River. He has long curly hair, wild rambunctious Zeppelin hair. "Can I walk with you?" he asks, standing up from his perch against the school wall. "I mean," he says, shaking out his hair, "You're so beautiful."
Andreas is in Greece. I meet him on his yacht, the 218-foot Rosenkavalier, built in 1929.
I'm having trouble fully articulating why it is I had such a problem with this book. The writing is good. The conceit is good. The structure is good. It was vivid and memorable and emotional.
I think, for lack of a better way to express myself, it all just felt like bullshit.
The first half of the book collectively felt like a Gwyneth Paltrow sexual humble brag. "Too many men have loved me. Life is so hard." A poet loves her. A famous musician loves her. A married man loves her. A guy with a girlfriend loves her. A random investment banker loves her. A creepy lawyer loves her. A recovering drug addict who eventually marries an heiress loves her. A sailor loves her. There are Catcher in the Rye references and Hamptons references and posh Central Park-adjacent references and nonchalant cocaine references and it's all so perfectly droll and "it" and now and wonderful and real and ugh give me a fucking break.
The second half felt like emotional kidnapping, like sexual melodrama tacked on to make the whole exercise meaningful and important.
This is allegedly "autobiographical fiction," so I don't mean any of this to speak towards any events that actually happened in this writer's life. If this were a memoir, I think I may have been much more sympathetic. If real, some of the shit this person went through is very serious and traumatizing, and I do not in any way want to trivialize those experiences, to suggest that those stories should not be told.
As fiction, though, it feels trite and unoriginal. If feels like the author herself is trivializing these experiences, like it's all for the best because hey look a clever book came out of it. Maybe I felt cheated not having access to knowledge of what was real and what was fiction? Maybe I didn't like that genuinely powerful emotional and sexual issues that may have been sincerely received were repurposed and processed through what felt like the Generic Serious Literature Machine? Every page screamed, "Look at me, look at how deep I am, how high brow and literary. This is the good stuff. This is raw. This is bestseller shit right here."
I don't know. None of this is really quite how I feel. I think I mostly feel cheated in some way, for some reason. Maybe it's not the writer's fault. Maybe I'm upset that the book is something other than what I want it to be. Maybe I'm entirely to blame for not understanding what it's like to be Elise McKnight, goddess and muse and troubled shell of a nothing character defined only by the men who love her.
Like the author inevitably must have said to dozens of men in her life, it's not you, 52 Men, it's me.
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