I like to think I know so much about the people that came before me in relationships past and present. I choose to believe the information gleaned from late-night confessional conversations and selective social media screenings provides a full portrait.
There are hundreds of first names and small details mentioned in the re-issued edition of Was She Pretty?, Leanne Shapton’s collection of drawings and short sentences about past relationships and previous lovers. Originally published in 2006, Drawn & Quarterly will release a new paperback edition in February 2016, ten years later.
It is exactly as devastating as when it was originally published. In as little as three sentences, Shapton can tell us everything a current lover thinks they know about the former. One page shows a woman in a turtleneck rifling through sheets of paper, her hair in a French twist and a cigarette in one hand. “Nicholas’s ex-girlfriend was a writer’s writer,” reads the text. Claudine was equal parts relieved and dismayed when she found a box of tampons in her new boyfriend’s bathroom. On another page, a woman with high-contrast cheekbones stares right at the reader: “Martin had never mentioned his hauntingly beautiful ex-girlfriend Carwai to Heidi.” The next shows a closed door and a sentence I can’t stop thinking about. “When Carwai called one night,” the story continues, “Martin took the telephone to another room and shut the door.” \
Formerly the art director for Saturday Night and the New York Times’ Opinion and Editorial pages, Shapton’s illustrations pair best with concise observations about lives led. Her own observations are always direct in their depths and inventive in their insights, like Swimming Studies, her illustrated memoir about being a competitive swimmer, or Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, a love story told in the form of a fictional auction catalogue.
Was She Pretty? stands out as being particularly sincere, indicting the reader for their jealousies without dismissing them. Over email, Shapton tells me she wanted to write about the “really specific, idiosyncratic traits that seem so inconsequential but get under the skin,” with an emphasis on the small things, such as “the way someone looks in a turtleneck.” When she first started writing the book, she spoke with lots of friends and read lots of books about jealousy in all forms. “Asking other women and men about their jealous episodes was actually fun. All of us have them—all of us in touch with our darker, shameful sides, at least.”
Shapton thinks we look for these stories in life and literature because they speak to the easily accessible versions of those darker sides. “It’s an emotion people understand and can have sympathy for, and also have a certain morbid curiosity towards.”
The title of the book asks a morbid question that is never answered. Was She Pretty? is, perhaps, a question too adept at anticipating an answer, and yet, no story in the book directly addresses it. Instead, Shapton finds the tangible, indisputable facts about a person so easily mistaken for identity, and pairs them with simple black-and-white sketches, bare but brutal. Flipping through the pages, we can feel just how painful it is to think of the way an ex behaves around animals and children, or what kind of designer clothes they wear.
Jealousy isn’t concerned with a simple attribute like attractiveness. Jealousy is concerned with what we know we can’t see with our own eyes or hear with our own ears. It’s the question of what an ex’s face or name looks or sounds like to our partner, not of whether she was objectively pretty but what they saw when they looked at her, not about who she was but what she meant; not about the fact that she called, but that he took the phone into the other room.
These are all hints of the intimacies we’ll never be able to understand, whether they existed before us, exist despite us, or worst of all, might exist after us. Perhaps most perversely, staring jealousy right in the face — through a paperback book — goes a long way to cure it. Since writing the book, Shapton tells me her own jealousy has gone into hibernation: as she says, it still “flares up when I feel vulnerable, but it is not quite the same animal.”
Leanne Shapton will be speaking with Sheila Heti on Feb. 6 at 7:30 p.m. at TYPE Books in Toronto.