What happens inside a relationship between two people? How does it begin? How does it end? What happens in between? How do two strangers create their own intimate world of inside jokes, of objects that take on special meaning, of places and things that can create a "twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone" (thank you, Matt Weiner)? For centuries, writers have tried to answer these questions, to articulate the often inarticulable - how does love bloom and why does it wither and die. Stories are written as tragedy, as farce, and many other things, but for my money, creating a faux art catalogue of lots that, through their descriptions (and depictions), tell the story of how two people came together and what split them apart, is as ingenious a way as I can think of to explain this unique human experience.
Leanne Shapton's Important Artifacts is a book I love.
Our couple, Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, meet cute, as we discover in the book's earliest pages, at a Halloween party where he, a photojournalist, dresses as Harry Houdini and she, a food critic for the New York Times, goes as Lizzie Borden (Lots 1003-1007, which include the party invitation and a photo of the couple, among other things). From the get-go, they are a hipster couple made in Brooklyn heaven who buy each other used books (Lots 1217, 1272), write love letters on stationary (Lot 1070), and revel in the bric-a-brac of vintage hand mixers (Lot 1192), martini glasses (Lot 1193) and framed postcards (Lots 1023, 1191). They also do very human things - fret over outfits (Lot 1012 is a set of six Polaroids Doolan took of possible Thanksgiving outfits), receive cautious optimism about their burgeoning romance from friends and family (Lot 1150, a note from Doolan's sister to her that includes the following "I really like him - I think he's a good guy for you."), and create their own leitmotif - the salt and pepper shaker collection that dots the book's pages (Lots 1119 (matching dachshunds), 1281 (various pairs the couple pilfered from restaurants)) and the elaborately drawn Valentine's Day menus that Doolan creates (Lots 1138, 1187, 1292).
But more than just mix CDs (Lots 1022 (a Christmas theme from Butterbitty (Doolan) to Hittymitty (Morris), 1044 (a Valentine's Day mix including songs from George Harrison, John Lennon, and some non-Beatles), 1100 (a six CD set!)) and internal doubt (Lots 1047 (including a note Doolan makes to herself to apologize to Morris), 1103 (including a note Morris makes to himself about her bad temper), we see the small graces - the Tiffany key ring that held the apartment key Doolan gave to Morris when they moved in together (Lot 1189), a favorite cardigan sweater they both adored (Lot 1142), and Doolan's first expression of love (taking the title of the book "Kinds of Love" and adding the letter "I" at the beginning, striking the letter "s" and adding the word "you" at the end so the title reads "I Kind of Love You." (Lot 1049)). And littered throughout are photos of the pair embracing, hugging, and eyeing each other dreamily. Doolan and Morris carry on precisely the type of relationship many of us can relate to - by turns tender and romantic as each reveals themselves to the other, fusty and petty as small grudges turn into bigger issues, and with the familiar comfort that only results when two people truly know one another.
Of course, because the book's conceit (not to mention the "note" from Morris to Doolan that serves as a prologue wherein he expresses regret about their relationship ending) is that the two are no longer together, the whimsy and headiness of falling in love and the cementing of that bond curdles as we learn of outbursts and raised voices (Lot 1247), lack of communication (Lot 1248), a semi-destroyed white noise machine (Lot 1306), a pregnancy test (Lot 1305), a months-long solo trip abroad (Lot 1311) a note from mother Doolan to her daughter about her and Morris "taking a break" (Lot 1321), and Morris's post-break-up attempt at friendship (Lot 1325).
Important Artifacts is like peering into a couple's diary or snooping around their home with convenient explainers attached to their personal belongings so you have the backstory of how each item got there and its meaning in the context of the couple's relationship. But what makes the book so memorable and wonderful is Shapton's keen eye for how two people grapple with the most basic (and powerful) of human emotions - love, loss, jealousy, anger, hope, fear, desire, and lust - as they pinball around the challenges we all wrestle with - our insecurities, job frustrations, desire for more of this or less of that and doing so by creating two totally believable characters who you immediately invest in.
Important Artifacts is a book for romantics as well as cynics, for those in, and who have lost, at love. It is my favorite book of the last 10 years and one I hope you too will enjoy.
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