Shelley Leedahl’s latest book, Listen, Honey, is proof positive that the old adage “never judge a book by its cover” is true. The lime-green cover features a stylized illustration of a woman in pink heels, dashing off somewhere while juggling laptop, handbag, lipstick, and cell phone – a hint that we’re in for something light and fun of the chick lit variety. The imperative of the title, suggests a knowledgeable and jaded confidante who is about to set the record straight.
But as it turns out, Listen, Honey, is neither hurried nor lighthearted and offers no irrepressibly direct Judge Judy-style advice. All 12 stories in this collection describe some manner of unhealthy relationship and most involve infidelity, sexual assault, marital breakdown, or characters in need of psychiatric help.
Leedahl has a gift for descriptions; particularly those that relate to small-town life and those that outline complex relationships. In “Light Housekeeping,” a woman dining at a family restaurant in a rural area imagines who the other patrons might be: “Men who had to leave school to help their fathers seed and harvest. They had been hungry as children. They sported wide fingers, thumbs half-missing or gone.” In “The Lay of the Land,” an ex-wife is described by the insecure new girlfriend as “an elegant woman, even in cutoff shorts and a wrinkled linen blouse, someone you expect will become exquisite with age, contract an aggressive form of cancer, deal with it valiantly and sans complaint, and be immortalized.”
Unfortunately, in many of the tales, the emotional return on one’s reading investment falls short. In the first piece, “Heads Down, Keep Low,” Denise spends a flight home musing about her career, her fellow passengers, the relative experience levels of the flight attendants, the way she used to play cards with her family – everything except the heart of the story, which is revealed to us only in the last few pages. Denise is going home to visit her ailing mother and will have to see her brother who has spent the last nine years incarcerated for statutory rape, probably because Denise turned him in. We learn this, and then the story abruptly ends, leaving us wondering what happens at this important and potentially explosive reunion.
It is as though we are being dressed up carefully to be taken somewhere, shown the destination at the last moment, then never actually allowed to visit the place.
In a few cases, the tales pack such a heavy emotional punch that I breathed a sigh of relief at the end, thankful that, unlike the characters, I could simply close the book and leave it behind. This was the case in “Scenes From a Family On Fire,” a complex and perfectly paced story of a couple struggling to know just how involved they should be in the life of their nephew, also their godson, after the boy’s deadbeat father leaves. The reader is shown a domestic scene between the boy’s parents that is so painfully dysfunctional, it’s like watching a car accident.
Not only is this one of the strongest pieces in the collection, it makes a far more fitting title for the book. What Leedahl has given us is a collection of scenarios in which relationships smolder, heating slowly but inexorably towards a volatile ignition. mRb