Memoirs are an anomaly in the literary world. They go in and out of style faster than clothing, and they are always sad and fantastical, the stuff of talk-show hosts and worst-case scenarios. Dave Eggers' breakthrough 2000 memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, has both of his parents dead before the book is even halfway over; James Frey's 2003 work, A Million Little Pieces, was a scandalous story all about overwhelming addiction; and both of Elizabeth Wurtzel's whiny memoirs, Prozac Nation and More, Now, Again, deal with depression so deep she doesn't wash her hair or buy milk.
Thankfully, Rob Sheffield's 2007 memoir, Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time (Three Rivers Press), is a totally different type of memoir. His story is simple, given away in 20 measly words on the back cover: His wife Renee, his goddess-girl hero and ultimate synth-pop duo partner, died at age 31, five years and 10 months after the two of them had gotten married. It is supremely sad but, unlike Frey's and Wurtzel's stories, it is sad in an imaginable, tangible way. There are no fireworks, no jail visits, no abusive parents, just a lot of pop music and love that died young.
Love Is a Mix Tape (released in paperback last month) reads equally like a memoir and a musical history of the '90s. The whole story is narrated through song titles and album names. Even Sheffield's relationship with Renee, the memoir's core, is veiled with descriptions of the music they shared: Big Star's "Thirteen," which they danced to at their wedding, and David Bowie's "Five Years," which became their five-year anniversary anthem. Sheffield, whose day job is writing for Rolling Stone, spouts out reference after reference, talking about everyone from Kurt Cobain to Pavement to Luscious Jackson without ever just name-dropping. Every song or artist he mentions means something, and the music easily becomes the story's greatest character.
Some of the memoir's greatest moments have nothing to do with music – like the image of Sheffield lining up Renee's MAC lipsticks like M&Ms on the bathroom counter – but the majority of those great moments do. Music is used as a metaphor over and over again, with song lyrics and liner notes serving to explain Sheffield's depth of love for his wife and the process of grief after she's died. Missy Elliot's "The Rain" lets him keep pushing through a long drive, and songs they shared transport him back to his time with Renee.
Ultimately, Love is a Mix Tape is the mostly cliché-free story of both moving on and never letting go, told through the vantage point of pop culture. Sheffield shares the journey of his relationship and his life as a young widower and catalogs the songs and the albums that followed him along it. Sheffield, in the end, creates a successful memoir, letting the music complicate the refreshingly simple narrative.
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