Publisher: Crown Publishing, 2007
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir
Where I Got It: Paperback Swap
My Rating: 3 stars
You might expect a memoir about a young husband losing his young wife unexpectedly would require a few tissues. Perhaps even an entire box. Yet I remained oddly dry-eyed through this book. After all, Rob and his wife Renée seem to be passionately in love and destined to be together forever. Their shared love of music and his devotion and love for her is evident and obvious. This memoir—Rob’s tribute to Renée and his account of their marriage, her sudden death at age 31, and his subsequent struggle as a widower—should be incredibly moving and a tearjerker … and yet it isn’t.
I think much of the problem has to do with the theme of the book that Sheffield chose: love is a mix tape. Each chapter starts with a play list from a mix tape taken from some part of his relationship with Renée or his coping with her loss. It makes sense that this is the “angle” on which the author has approached the book. Both Rob and Renée are passionate about music. (Rob is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and has been working as a rock critic and pop culture journalist for 15 years. Renée also wrote for music magazines. It is obvious that music was one of the foundations of their lives.) Yet if you don’t share the knowledge of the songs and bands he is writing about, much of the book’s nuances and emotion are lost. For example, Rob writes several times about the band Pavement—a group with which I have no familiarity—and the band’s importance to him and Renée. Yet all these sections left me cold as I don’t have ANY relationship with Pavement with which to supplement my reading experience. About halfway through the book, it occurred to me that this book would be much more effective if it came packaged with the mix tapes to listen to when reading.
In addition to losing a reader’s interest and emotional investment by repeated references to song and artists that the reader may be unfamiliar with, I think the “love is a mix tape” theme kept the author from really exploring the emotions he was experiencing. Rather than paint a picture with words that communicates the depth of loss he was feeling, he mentions songs that he played. This tends to break down when the reader either doesn’t know the song or has different associations with it. When he mentions listening to Missy Elliott’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” when brooding late at night, I immediately flashed to the first time I heard it when driving in my car on a sunny day while doing to the mall and that freaky video of Missy wearing that big garbage bag-like outfit. By bringing my own mental associations to the song (which is very hard not to do), I was immediately taken out of Rob’s story and into my own.
The one real emotional moment I had while reading the book came when I read this passage:
The coroner later told me that she died instantly, that pulmonary embolisms kill in less than a minute, that even if it had happened in a hospital, the doctors would have been powerless to save her.
The reason this passage resonated so much with me was that a pulmonary embolism is what caused my mom’s death in December. Reading that line—which echoed exactly what the doctors told my brothers and I—was comforting in an odd way. It told me that both Renée and my mom died quickly and probably without any pain. They most likely never knew what happened.
Finally, a word about mix tapes. If you are of a certain age, you probably had some experience making mix tapes. I know I spent many laborious hours constructing mix tapes using a variety of methods: recording records, attempting to catch songs when they played on the radio, and doing tape to tape transfers. Creating a mix tape really is an act of love as it requires a considerable amount of time and energy on the part of the creator. (It isn’t like today’s “click a few buttons and you have an iPod play list” method. It required some serious dedication and patience.) Back in college, I made a mix tape that was so good, several people asked me to duplicate it for them. I used to have mix tapes for almost every occasion, with titles such as “Mellow Mix,” “Happy Day Songs,” “Break-Up Help,” and “Cleaning.”
Of course, mix tapes were often a way of communicating with someone you liked without being overt about it. I remember agonizing over a mix tape I was making for a boy that I wanted to simultaneously impress and “seduce.” (It didn’t work… except he said I had “good taste” in music.) And I remember being on the receiving end of mix tapes and listening to each track to find out how the boy who gave it to me really felt about me. (All too often, I came to the conclusion that the boy was just sharing some good jams and wasn’t really all that into me. On the plus side, I discovered quite a few of my favorite artists via mix tapes. I’m quite sure I would have never become a fan of Tom Waits or Prefab Sprout if I’d not been exposed to their music on a mix tape.)
As I’ve written these last two paragraphs, I realize that the power of mix tapes lies in listening to the music and the relationship between the giver and the recipient. I’m sure that the mix tapes that defined Rob and Renée’s relationship were excellent, but they lost their power when relegated to the page. And that ends up being the fatal flaw of this book.
My Final Recommendation
Unless you are a die-hard music buff who would seriously get off on seeing the various mix tape play lists that begin each chapter, I’m not sure I would recommend this book. Although there is nothing really wrong with it, I just didn’t connect emotionally with it and I think that this type of story should evoke some sort of emotional reaction. A memoir of a man losing his beloved wife at a young age is tragic. I needed to feel that tragedy when reading and, sadly, I didn’t.
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