At first glance, there’s nothing to tip readers off to the fact that this book is anything other than an auction catalog. The cover includes an auction date (Saturday, 14 February 2009) and the name of the auction house (Strachan & Quinn). And flipping through the pages reveals nothing more than a series of photographs and item descriptions with lot numbers. There’s a pair of linen napkins, embroidered with the initials L and H. There’s a set of stained and worn tea towels, a collection of five small rocks, a heart-shaped ice cube mold, and lots of handwritten notes, vintage clothing, and books, often with notes laid in.
Author (and compiler) Leanne Shapton uses these objects to tell a story of a relationship from beginning to end. Through these images and descriptions, we learn about what sorts of people Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris are, and we watch their relationship grow and decline. The story itself is not too unusual. Lenore writes a food column for The New York Times, focusing on baking. Harold is a freelance photographer whose work takes him all over the world. Harold is approaching 40, while Lenore is in her 20s. They meet in 2002 at a Halloween party thrown by some mutual friends, and by Thanksgiving, they’re starting to fall in love. They exchange notes and gifts, they travel and go to plays together, they read the same books. And by 2006, they’re exchanging notes about how they hope they can be friends.
The objects collected here show how the relationship evolved over time. The early pages show random gifts that required thought and effort. Harold sends eleven postcards from his three-week trip to England in December 2002. Lenore (sort of) declares her love in an inscription on the cover page of a 1970 edition of the May Sarton novel, Kinds of Love. They make big and small romantic gestures and seem thoroughly swept up in each other. But even then, the relationship isn’t without bumps. Harold has to apologize for his reaction to the meringue Lenore made him for his 40th birthday—”I’ve always loathed meringue and thought I’d mentioned it. It looked great!” And little notes and letters express doubts about the relationship. But this all seems natural enough. As the book goes on, the number of romantic gestures go down, and gifts are pegged to birthdays and Christmas. The objects are less about falling in love and more about sharing life together. There’s a metal cup for toothbrushes and a pair of bedside lamps. And there’s a backgammon board charred at the edges, having been thrown in the fireplace during a fight.
I tend to love epistolary novels and books that collect documents and other ephemera from life, so I found this a compelling way to tell a story that isn’t necessary compelling on its own. Any hum-drum story can elevated to something special if the author knows how to tell that story—and that’s the case even when an author uses traditional techniques. But the nice thing about telling a story through stuff is that it reveals so much about what the characters are like without crowding the narrative with what seem like extraneous details, such as brand names and book titles. Taking all of these objects and incorporating them into a traditional narrative would make for an obnoxious narrative about a pretentious couple that’s working too hard to be quirky and unique with their vintage swimsuits and oddball collectibles.
Shapton does well at maintaining her conceit all the way through the book, this kind of storytelling requires some compromises to make the story complete. It’s best not to think much about how this collection of objects came to be. Why, for instance, are there so many e-mail printouts? The ones with additional notes and directions handwritten on them make sense, but some seemed to be included only to advance the story. And the mail doesn’t run quickly enough for some of the letter exchanges when Harold was overseas to actually work. But such compromises were rare enough to keep the book from feeling like a cheat. I’d rather see a few little fudges like these than frequent annotations to explain the story in more detail.
If you appreciate nontraditional storytelling approaches, this is worth seeking out. And I’d love your suggestions for similar books!