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Important Artifacts by Leanne Shapton

Important Artifacts…’ is not just a novel. It is also a work of art. Leanne Shapton, art director of the New York Times op-ed page and author of ‘Was She Pretty?’, presents us with the story of a relationship and its end. Now, as you and I both know, break-up stories are dime-a-dozen… But told in this way? Not a chance.

Shapton takes us through the love affair between Lenore Doolan, a New York Times cookery writer, and Harold Morris, a respected photographer, in the form of an auctioneer’s catalogue. The 325 lots up for auction are the remains of this tender and tense relationship: worn paperbacks, postcards, jewellery, clothing, knick-knacks, photographs…

The result of what must have been a process both fun and finicky for author, models and photographers is quite possibly one of the most intimate, engrossing, and extraordinary books I have ever read. Indeed, there were moments while reading ‘Important Artifacts…’ where I felt like an intruder or a voyeur. The photographs of the various items, together with the short descriptions, are what allow us to piece together this story of a failed love. Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris don’t exist – and I had a hard time believing that. This, in itself, is a testament to the magic of this unique book.

Shapton does not tell us how the auctioneers came to be in possession of these ‘Important Artifacts’ (something I’m still wondering about), but the auctioneers have them, and they’ve arranged them in chronological order for our convenience, so it doesn’t feel as though we’ve opened up a 325-piece jigsaw puzzle.

The very first lot in the catalogue, number 1001, introduces us to the spirited, elfin Lenore: “A photograph of Lenore Doolan, age 26. An original color print of Doolan at her desk at the New York Times, 2002…” Lot 1002 is “a passport photograph of Harold Morris, age 39…” The items following relate directly to where and how the vibrant Doolan and the melancholic though dryly-funny Morris first met: a Hallowe’en party thrown by mutual friends; Doolan dressed as Lizzie Borden and Morris as Harry Houdini. The exquisitely-posed photographs of this first meeting drew me right in, as anyone who has ever been out of their house will instantly recognise the scene.

I found that not only does the author have a knack for telling us just enough about each item, but she also has an eye for the perfect visual content. The items up for auction are mostly common-place, as simple and everyday as salt-and-pepper shakers, but each is integral to the story, each item revealing more of the personalities of the characters in the course of their relationship with one another. Shapton’s concise words, together with the photographs, take us from the couple’s first meeting to their separation. We see evidence of their individual work assignments, whether it’s Lenore baking cake after cake after cake, or Harold travelling to distant locations for photo-shoots. There are parties and plays they attended together, gifts given to one another, heirlooms, pyjamas, menus and sunglasses. Leanne Shapton gives us these instead of flowery words. Fluttering hearts and doe-eyes, wet with tears, are neither found nor needed in ‘Important Artefacts’.

It is through these ‘Important Artifacts’ that we observe a young, vibrant Doolan and the older, more worldy-wise Morris trying to come to terms with a love that just won’t work. Yes, they love each other and they hurt each other. They try to understand themselves and one another, they try to change things, to Work It Out. But it’s just not enough. And that is all I’m going to tell you, because I don’t want to spoil a single thing for you.

This funny, tender, sad, and incredibly intimate story is one of the most ‘real’ novels I’ve ever read. This welcome addition to my bookshelf is, in a word I hate to use (but am going to, so help me, because it’s the truth), unputdownable. Please read it. But don’t ask me if you may borrow my copy. It’s already among my Books I Don’t Lend Out – only because I know that anyone who reads it will want to keep it forever.


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