A cryptic book of captioned black-and-white drawings about the “ex” factor in romance
Was She Pretty? By Leanne Shapton. Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Sarah Crichton Books, 208 pp., $20.
By Janice Harayda
Couples tend to mythologize the story of how they met, embroidering the tale with each retelling. But if they overplay their first encounters, they are likely to pare down the stories of their break-ups, leaving only a few strokes to represent why a romance ended. “We grew in different directions” may mean, “I tried to nail him into the sauna the way Kathleen Turner did to Michael Douglas in The War of The Roses.”
This kind of paring down underlies Was She Pretty?, a quirky book of captioned black-and-white line drawings by Leanne Shapton. An art director whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Shapton asked people about their former lovers and distilled their answers into an offbeat commentary on exes, with facing page portraits and captions. The cryptic lines of text and bold, minimalist drawings have an emotional symmetry: Both withhold more than they reveal.
Some entries reflect obsessions or at least lingering anxieties. Others have a low-keyed wit that suggests that some of its lovers have learned the meaning of the saying: “Comedy is tragedy in retrospect.” These entries include a portrait of a bearded young man with downcast eyes, wearing a V-neck sweater and tie, that has the caption, “Tania’s ex-boyfriend Marcel once told her that the sex they had was ‘up there with the best.’” Ouch.
As a group, the entries in Was She Pretty? suggest the many ways we romanticize exes. “Sebastian’s ex-girlfriend Makeda often mentioned that she was descended from Ethiopian royalty.” “Marie’s ex-boyfriend had chosen prog rock over a career in classical music.” “Nicholas’s ex-girlfriend was a writer’s writer.” The appeal of the entries lies partly in their ambiguous point of view. The captions are written in the third person. But we don’t know whether we are hearing the voice of an omniscient narrator (Shapton) or of one person (the one whose ex is described or his or her current lover). That’s part of the fun of this book. If couples tend to mythologize their meetings, Was She Pretty? reminds us that they can also mythologize their break-ups, but doesn’t try to one-up Dr. Phil in explaining why they do.
Best Line: “Milosz scrupulously updated his address book with his ex-girlfriends’ current numbers, even if he hadn’t spoken to them for years.” And: “When Elinor began dating Leonard, she found a lovingly inscribed copy of The Reluctant Submissive’s Handbook placed backward on the bookshelf.”
Worst Line: “Ted’s ex-girlfriend was a fashion designer.”
Recommended if … you liked Ilene Beckerman’s pictorial memoir, Love, Loss, and What I Wore (Algonquin, 2005).
Editor: Sarah Crichton
Published: November 2006
Posted by Janice Harayda
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.