A couple of days ago, my friend was flipping through Was She Pretty, an ode to past relationships and current insecurities by writer and artist Leanne Shapton which Drawn & Quarterly is re-releasing this month.
“All the exes mentioned in the book are like, super successful artists and stuff,” said my friend. “You don’t see, ‘Jane works a double shift at the grocery store.’”
Was She Pretty is a sparse book. It’s a collection of brief vignettes, each one spread out over two pages, told in a few simple sentences accompanied by brief, expressive drawings. “Nicholas’s ex-girlfriend was a writer’s writer,” says one page, next to an illustration of a woman in a turtleneck and chignon, flipping through pages of what appears to be a manuscript. Another page gives the reader a bit more detail: “Joel’s ex-girlfriend Marie was a concert pianist. He described her hands as ‘quick and deft.’ Her nails were painted with dark red Chanel varnish.”
In this way, my friend was right; the book focuses on the highlights of relationships gone by, where the exes’ greatest accomplishments are slick on display. But whereas my friend made this observation as a criticism of Shapton’s choices, I see it as a harsh and vivid truth. It’s easily assumed that these moments are told from the points of view from current girlfriends or boyfriends: people who are aware of their lovers’ ex-lovers through their shiniest, biggest moments, spectres of the past haunting current paramours to remind them of everything they are not. In just a handful of words or a flick of the pen, Shapton stabs you in the gut, bleeding out the pettiness that pulses below the surface of the skin typically hidden behind a thin membrane of decorum.
Not all of the exes in the book are remembered by their professional accomplishments. For every concert pianist or writer’s writer, there is somebody who is known only for the quieter intimacies they share with the current lover. Most of Richard’s shirts had been chosen for him by his ex-girlfriend, Cassandra. Ghislaine’s ex-girlfriend Sophie borrowed a lot of her clothes, but never reciprocated. It’s these passages that are perhaps the most poignant and painful, qualities of a person that don’t get observed by a casual outsider and are instead deeply felt imprints left behind.
It’s not incidental that the excerpts above (and many more within the book) all incorporate clothing in some way. Shapton is astute in recognizing the way fashion is a conduit to memory and all the messiness that comes with it. (In 2014 she co-edited, along with Heidi Julavits and Sheila Heti, Women in Clothes, an anthology in which writers—some who worked in fashion, most who didn’t—considered the roles that clothing played in their lives.)
Clothing frequently exists as a link between the personal and public. It serves as an immediate indicator of a person’s status, a quick visual to strangers of the ways in which a person is like you and the many more in which they are not, dark red Chanel varnish against the striking ivory keys of a piano. But even the most nondescript items of clothing can contain within them dozens of personal stories perceptible only to the wearer (or their exes). A sweater can hold the lingering scent of the boyfriend it was borrowed from long after the relationship has ended. A closet can be filled with relics, gifts and mementos from people who were well acquainted with past incarnations of a person a who no longer exists. A snazzy dress can be bought at the start of a burgeoning relationship, holding within it the promise to bring out the best version of yourself in the best version of your life, only to later lie limp as a heap of fabric at the bottom of your laundry hamper, worn only twice before the realization that the “dry clean only” label was an indicator of a world you just weren’t ready to commit to.
Was She Pretty? is filled with these types of moments. Tying together descriptions of ex-lovers’ lavish careers lifestyles are these threads that sum up all the best and worst aspects of laying your vulnerabilities bare to another human. To say Shapton evokes feelings of nostalgia isn’t inaccurate, though it’s maybe simplistic. Instead, Was She Pretty? is best summed up as a book of longing.