Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time
Three Rivers Press, 2007 (paperback) (ISBN 1400083036 / 9781400083039)
Nonfiction/memoir, 240 pages
First Sentence: The playback: last night, Brooklyn, a pot of coffee, and a chair by the window. I’m listening to a mix tape from 1993.
It was also when a shy music geek named Rob Sheffield met a hell-raising Appalachian punk-rock girl named Renée, who was way too cool for him but fell in love with him anyway. He was tall. She was short. He was shy. She was a social butterfly. She was the only one who laughed at his jokes when they were so bad, and they were always bad. They had nothing in common except that they both loved music. Music brought them together and kept them together. And it was music that would help Rob through a sudden, unfathomable loss.
In Love Is a Mix Tape, Rob, now a writer for Rolling Stone, uses the songs on fifteen mix tapes to tell the story of his brief time with Renée. From Elvis to Missy Elliott, the Rolling Stones to Yo La Tengo, the songs on these tapes make up the soundtrack to their lives.
Rob Sheffield isn’t a musician, he’s a writer, and Love Is a Mix Tape isn’t a love song- but it might as well be. This is Rob’s tribute to music, to the decade that shaped him, but most of all to one unforgettable woman.
Comments: I enjoyed this book, but not as much as I’d hoped to. Rob Sheffield has written a series of reminiscences about his life and his late wife, Renée, with each chapter tied to a particular mix tape of songs (in some cases, an actual cassette) that one or the other had put together.
Rob and Renee were in their mid-twenties when they met in Charlottesville, Virginia in the early 1990’s. They had been married for five years when Renée suddenly died of a pulmonary embolism, and much of the book concerns Rob’s coming to terms with unexpected widowhood in his early thirties. He conveys the grief and anger associated with that very clearly, and I felt for him. What I didn’t feel he did as well was give a real sense of who Renée was. It’s clear that he thought she was special, and seemed to keep a sense of wonderment about their relationship – “what’s a girl like her doing with a guy like me?” – that’s rather sweet, but I really didn’t come away from the book feeling like I knew her very well. The story really is mostly about him, and that’s fine, but I would have felt more connected with it emotionally if there had been more of her too. I think I would have liked more from the book overall.
Despite the premise, I didn’t find this book to be maudlin at all. In fact, parts of it were very funny. I love the concept of the mix tape – the idea that there’s a message, or a theme, in the particular combination of songs you choose for someone. It’s an appropriate metaphor for Rob and Renée’s relationship, in addition to a way of sampling their life together.
I read this immediately after I finished Jancee Dunn’s Don’t You Forget About Me, another story in which music plays a big part (although that one’s fictional), and it was a good pairing. Sheffield and Dunn were both writers for Rolling Stone, and he mentions her in his acknowledgements.