Our past relationships hang in our memories in bits and pieces – the perfume she used to wear, the kind of music he liked, the way she cheated, the way he betrayed you. Our memories of our exes are snapshots, simplified versions of reality. Leanne Shapton’s Was She Pretty? illustrates that beautifully. With a few words and simple drawings, Shapton depicts the exes of various men and women. There’s June’s ex-boyfriend, Wade, who kept his love letters in
a kitchen drawer that June never touched but stared at frequently. There’s Wade’s ex-girlfriend, Siobahn, a poet. There’s Jonathan’s ex-girlfriend, Constance, whose nurse’s uniform fascinated him.
These are just some of the stories Shapton tells with a paragraph or two, accompanied by witty, elegant pen and ink drawing. In those few words and pictures, we get an idea of these couples, and their ups and downs. It’s a light book (I read the whole thing in about half an hour), but funny, intelligent and deeply affecting.
Sure, more searing, in-depth books have been written about break-ups (Jennifer Weiner’s Good in Bed leaps rapidly to mind), but I like the simplicity of Shapton’s stories. They read the way that our past relationships exist in our minds. They’re just snippets of memories and characteristics from relationships that were obviously much more complicated than what’s revealed in a few words. But those words boil the relationships down to the things that mattered: the reason these exes got together, the reason they split apart, the things that stick in the mind after the relationship is over.
Ultimately, Shapton seems to be saying, we define our exes by the way we remember them. It’s an interesting thought and an interesting book.