Jealous much?

Leanne Shapton plumbs the anxiety provoked by seeing lovers' ex-lovers in her quirky meditation on the ugly green monster inside us.

Published November 16, 2006 11:39AM (EST)

Last summer, at a street fair near my neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., I glimpsed my boyfriend's ex-girlfriend. She was absorbed in conversation with two friends and didn't see me. Half an hour later, I saw her again, walking in the opposite direction. Each time she passed, I felt queasy. I bought a samosa from a vendor and went home. Later that night, I was doubled over with symptoms I won't go into.

That evening came to mind as I read "Was She Pretty?" Leanne Shapton's dreamy exploration of relationships and jealousy. For the project, Shapton, a Canadian-born artist and writer, plumbed her own ex-induced anxieties and interviewed friends about theirs. The result is an illustrated sequence of vignettes about couples and the exes who haunt them. In the book's final anecdote, "Louise" goes to the emergency room with stomach cramps after seeing "Greg's ex-girlfriend Lucy" at a party.

I had been inclined, unromantically, to blame my intestinal woes on the greasy street fare. But if Louise ate any suspect hors d'oeuvres at the party, they go unmentioned. Shapton has created a world isolated from such mundane factors, in recognition -- almost in honor -- of jealousy's power. That said, Louise's story is uncharacteristically dramatic. Most of the vignettes, accompanied by impressionistic ink drawings, are pithy and deadpan, hinting at vague threats and insecurities. A typical page reads, "Kelly and her boyfriend Len kept running into women he 'used to know.'" Or, "Sheldon's ex-girlfriend was Dianna. She was uninhibited."

Nearly all of the drawings depict single individuals, as if to underscore the loneliness caused by jealousy. Dianna, for example, is sketched alone, in a clingy dress, hip jutting to one side and arms raised, hands behind her head. Maybe the image is an accurate recording -- or does it come from Sheldon's memory, or from Sheldon's current girlfriend's imagination? This ambiguity applies to the verbal sketches as well. "She was uninhibited" sounds like a quote, something said and repeated about Dianna. (It also seems to imply that someone has a few more inhibitions.) The exes -- primarily, but not exclusively, female -- are legends, distilled into one characteristic or habit. Perhaps another reason for the choice to present them alone, against blank backgrounds: They are decontextualized, not real.

"Was She Pretty?" resists classification, sending mixed signals about how seriously to take it. Shapton clearly has artistic ambitions, and the book is elegant and well designed. The publisher -- Farrar, Straus and Giroux -- is selling it as a "brilliant gem" and a "work of unsurpassed originality," in the words of the book jacket. But it feels a tad "merchy," as they say in publishing. It would not look out of place on the books table at Urban Outfitters. An efficient read takes 15 minutes tops -- you could peruse it cover to cover while waiting for a friend to try on T-shirts with ironic slogans. And the same book jacket suggests filing it under "Relationships," undermining its own lofty copy with self-help implications.

Adding to the lightweight vibe is the fabulousness of the characters. As well as a study of jealousy, the book is a portrait of a social milieu. The answer to the title's question seems to be yes, she was pretty -- and she had a cool job and probably a great Pilates instructor, too. The exes' occupations include supermodel, novelist, filmmaker, fashion designer, fashion designer "muse" and actress. With the exception of a female bisexual, the characters are all straight. There is some ethnic diversity, but of the exotic, cosmopolitan variety. (Sample names: Carwai, Makeda, Estefania. No Latishas.) The relative homogeny is understandable, since the book is based on the author and her circle. Shapton is a young, artistic and, if her author photo is any indication, beautiful New Yorker, and like most of us, she probably associates with people who are not terribly different from herself. To be sure, some of the glamour can be chalked up to the mythologizing of the exes. Still, it detracts from the depth and universality that Shapton at times seems to be aiming for.

Indeed, some of the pages reminded me of American Apparel ads, which supply a bit of information about the model to further pique curiosity or to justify lust. "Ben's ex-girlfriend Lara was a physiotherapist for the Canadian men's and women's Olympic swim teams," we are informed. "She wore small white shorts year-round." On the opposite page, a leggy woman and her promised shorts are on display.

Other passages recall comic strips. One refers to the multiple girlfriends of "Graham." "He made them all the same mixed CD -- a compilation of romantic and meaningful songs." The next three pages each show a woman listening to music in a different setting: One is in full lotus, wearing headphones; another sits before a typewriter with a CD player behind her; the last stares into a mirror as musical notes waft by.

Anchoring the playful aspects, though, are more serious undertones. For announcing highbrow intentions, nothing does the trick like quoting Kierkegaard; Shapton enlists the Danish philosopher for her epigraph, which describes a "chain formed of gloomy fancies, of alarming dreams, of troubled thoughts, of fearful presentiments," a chain that "yields to the most powerful strain, and cannot be torn apart." She wants to probe the anxieties that come with the risky endeavor of feeling attached to another person. And her book is a modest achievement. The drawings, while not virtuosic, are expressive; the language is correspondingly plain yet evocative. Permeated with fears and desires, "Was She Pretty?" effectively creates a dreamlike experience. Plus, you have to give Shapton credit for taking on a subject that many of us would prefer not to dwell on.

"Jealous" is often used to mean "envious," but there is, for purists at least, a difference. As Joseph Epstein observed in his 2003 book "Envy," "One is jealous of what one has, envious of what other people have." In other words, jealousy is more like possessiveness, envy more like covetousness. Envy is never sympathetic. Epstein quotes Dorothy Sayers: "Envy is the great leveler: if it cannot level things up, it will level them down ... rather than have anyone happier than itself, it will see us all miserable together." Of course, jealousy, too, can be a toxic, even violent, force. But in its milder forms, there's more pathos to it. It's the recognition that what's yours is tenuously so, if at all. In secure relationships, Shapton suggests, jealousy is just a primal, occasional response to the idea of your lover with someone else. The notion simply doesn't agree with you.

Paranoid possessiveness makes for good material -- just look at Proust, the ultimate jealousy specialist, or Noah Baumbach's 1997 film "Mr. Jealousy." For the audience, exposure to such absurd extremes can, I think, be strangely therapeutic. It's like seeing the raw, bloody cuticles of a compulsive nail-biter, and feeling inspired to quit -- or, alternatively, feeling reassured that at least your bad habit is under control.

But pathological jealousy is not Shapton's main interest. "Was She Pretty?" chronicles the moments and details that bring on entirely natural, probably passing responses. Some of the featured couples, in fact, seem remarkably mature. Toward the end, "Margaret" finds some old journals belonging to her boyfriend "Scott" and can't resist taking a peek. (As the book progresses, the vignettes get longer and more involved, some spanning several pages, although these are still interspersed with one-liners.) Nauseated, Margaret reads about women from Scott's past, including an adventurous lover (a woman is sketched on all fours, naked but for high heels). Scott recorded a funny observation of his own jealousy, which underlines the emotion's irrationality: Seeing an ex on the subway with another man, he felt "jealous, but sorry for the man." Of Margaret's vying reactions, the one that emerges strongest is love, as she recognizes endearing qualities in her man. "This did not go far to alleviate her nausea, or slow the spool of images rushing through her head. But Scott's past, before she met him, was blameless, and real." Instead of exposing excessive jealousy for all its pointless destructiveness, Shapton's work explores a sane feeling that is possibly ineradicable but unpleasant nonetheless. "Was She Pretty?" might remind you of your own insecurities, and stoke jealousy; it's no self-help book.

But -- to hazard my own positive-thinking spin -- exes are not without their benefits. Ideally, after all, people learn from the past and arrive at new relationships wiser, better prepared to meet their partners' needs. Although Shapton doesn't address this utility directly, one story seems to encapsulate the conflicting roles exes play. During a romantic dinner at her new boyfriend's place, "Claudine" has "a small emergency." In the bathroom, she finds, to "her relief and equally her dismay," a half-empty (or, you might say, half-full) box of tampons.

By Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow

Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow is a writer in Somerville, Mass.

MORE FROM Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow

Related Topics ------------------------------------------