When asked what love had to do with her book Was She Pretty?, author and illustrator Leanne Shapton had to stifle a guffaw.
“What’s love got to do with it? It’s more about what jealously has to do with love,” she said over the phone while navigating her way through New York traffic.
“It’s definitely the dark side of love. You know, when you’re two months into a new relationship and you start to wonder about your new love’s history?’
It was Shapton’s “raging jealousy” at the beginning of her relationship with her now husband, that sparked the idea for the book (“it was the most popular question he got asked about ex-girlfriends”) which is composed of simple black and white illustrations opposite minimalist descriptions of past girlfriends. While she understood jealousy as an unfortunate side-effect of love, she thought she’d ask around and see what others had to say on the topic.
It turns out, a lot.
“It’s much better to talk about these jealousies with girlfriends than to bring them into the relationship — especially in the early stages,” she said. “One friend of mine accidentally body checked one of her boyfriend’s exes . . . sometimes you just have to laugh . . .”
Creating Was She Pretty? provided Shapton with “a release to laugh at my own ridiculousness” while reminding her that the issues of jealousy and insecurity in romantic relationships aren’t new ones. They’re also not going anywhere.
“I don’t think my romantic fascination will ever go away,” she continued, noting its general popularity and citing classics from Shakespeare — who gave jealousy its “green-eyed monster” moniker in Othello — to Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, the ultimate “impossible to live up to” ex.
“There are so many very deep feelings about love which are out of our control,” she said. “When I was drawing the book, I tried not to be prescriptive. I really wanted to leave a lot out. I wanted it to be specifically black and white so the reader could fill in the blanks.”
Was She Pretty? gives readers an opportunity to develop their own narrative via the imagined superior traits of the subjects’ boyfriends’ exes. The subtleties of tone in its deliberately simple style give an allegorical quality to the grey areas surrounding love as they blend in with whatever the reader brings along for the ride. Originally published in 2006, the book received international, critical acclaim and went on to cult status; in honour of its 10th anniversary, publisher Drawn & Quarterly has created a paperback edition.
“When the hardcover came out ten years ago, on the back it listed ‘relationships’ as the section of the bookstore it could be placed,” Shapton said.
“I know it has to do with relationships — I’ve had women come up to me and tell me it’s helped them get over similar jealousies — but it’s definitely about the darker side. Drawn & Quarterly has put it in graphic novels, which is much better.”
The book’s title, is also open for interpretation: is the question asked out of curiosity, or does it contain a hint of dismissiveness?
That too is for the reader to decide. However, ten years on Was She Pretty? — no matter where it’s shelved in bookstores — really is about love and human behaviour.