Was She Pretty? by Leanne Shapton

My close friends know that there’s always one or two stories from their past that I could hear again and again – stories that represent everything I love about them.

My close friends also know that I assign my exes ‘stories’ and that those stories are usually reduced to one defining thing, one throwaway description, one random fact.  The guy that didn’t eat vegetables (I could never come to terms with it and we broke up). The engineering student that had long, blond hair, much nicer than my own. The guy who tried the cliché yawn/arm around the shoulder trick at the movies. The rower who was a sloppy drunk.

You laugh about this stuff because everyone has similar stories. But sometimes I wonder why, decades later, these details stand out. I guess we create stories to justify the break-ups and the heartbreaks, to provide context to our experience, or to compartmentalise it. Which is EXACTLY what Leanne Shapton has done with her curious little volume of flash-fiction, Was She Pretty?.

You could rip through Was She Pretty? in 15 minutes but if you did, you’d kind of miss the point. Instead, take the time to consider each little scenario about past relationships – they seem off-beat but there’s something uncomfortably familiar in the sentiment behind each story.

The book is pegged as a rumination on jealousy – how we obsess over exes, and the shadowy-figures of their exes – and how a few details about a person come to represent so much more. For example –

Ken’s ex-girlfriend Sonya had been wearing Japanese designer clothes for decades.


Claudine had a small emergency in the middle of a romantic dinner at her new boyfriend’s apartment. To her relief and equally to her dismay, she found half a box of tampons in the medicine cabinet.

It’s what’s implied or unsaid in these stories that stick –

Estefania’s ex-boyfriend suggested she wear darker jeans.


Owen was Agnes’s ex-boyfriend. He had introduced her as his ‘friend’ one too many times.

The stories are no longer than a few sentences and each is accompanied by a simple but expressive line drawing. Most are written from the female point-of-view and portray women as  insecure, paranoid and trying to match the mythical ex but at the same time avoid their mistakes (they are an ex for a reason).

Elizabeth had no problems with exes. It was the women who replaced her that drove her crazy. They always had: thinner ankles, poutier lips and Ph.D.s

Of course, women are not bundles of nerves, shrieking and jealous all of the time. But nor are our exes or past relationships only about designer Japanese clothing, thin ankles or bulging address books.

3/5 Who should read it? No idea but the question ‘How do we compare?’ is difficult to ignore.

8 responses

  1. Oh, I love the sound of this Kate. I’ve only read a little flash fiction, but you are right about ripping through them. They usually pack a punch – small or big – or at least make you double-take. You don’t want to miss those by just reading the words or “getting” the point without pondering them a little do you.

    Why did you give it only 3 out of 5?? It sounds sort of delicious?

    • My score may have been a little tight on reflection… I think I felt that the overwhelming vibe was that women are all jealous, petty and vindictive. The few stories that were from a male pov painted a much more agreeable picture. Perhaps that was intentional, I don’t know. I probably should have taken into account the drawings when giving my score – she is very talented.

  2. I’ve become fond of flash fiction so I reckon I’d give this a go. I’ve read her book Swimming Studies as well as a couple of others whose covers she designed. The title must be an allusion to George Eliot (Daniel Deronda)?

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