Most books about love become epitaphs. For better or for worse they wax into relics, elegies for times so wistful or devoted they deserved to be memorialized.
Gone With the Wind, Wuthering Heights, a Harlequin novel, a sext message. Everything anyone has ever written or read about love is a hymn for a time that has come and gone.
Rob Sheffield’s first book, 2007’s Love is a Mix Tape, was a memoir about mourning the death of his first wife, which he did by charting the songs on old mix tapes. “It was a smashing time,” he wrote about his marriage then, “and then it ended, because that’s what times do.” He also wrote that when we die, we all turn into songs – that “we will hear each other and remember each other.”
The same can be said for books, especially books written by Rob Sheffield, who knows very well that times do end. Turn Around Bright Eyes, his third, seems an endeavour to grasp the perfect present before it gets away from him. Sheffield shares in earnest and endearing detail the period between losing his first love and finding Ally, his second wife, with whom he cathartically sings his broken heart back together in dim karaoke dives across America. To a man who had been deeply in love, happily married and suddenly lost his wife by the age of 31, the fear of being devastated by death is different from the dark corners of “what if” we’ve all got in our heads somewhere. To Sheffield, death and the caustic end of love are not just things that could happen; they are things that did happen, and could again at any time.
Even the sweetest moments in Turn Around Bright Eyes, which occur as he is falling in love with Ally, are quietly underscored by a prescient awareness that this very book will one day be a relic – that it has to be. That Ally, of whom Sheffield writes lovingly and whom he clearly cherishes, is his second wife serves as a constant memorandum that all times do end; that’s just what they do. An astrophysicist and fellow music freak, she shakes up Sheffield’s concept of certainty when she points out that “gravity always wins,” a line from a Radiohead song, is factually incorrect. She’s as much a symbol of what love can do as what it can’t. Like gravity, love does not always win.
Sheffield muses that he and Ally look forward to their retirement years, but also that he hopes never again to live alone. He writes that Ally “made everything seem new,” but that once you love somebody, you can’t get that person out of your system. He hates it when people say, “Get home safely,” at the end of the evening, and of the many nights he and Ally duet around Manhattan until last call wanting one more song against the mercy of time ticking, Sheffield writes that the end always comes too soon.
The rituals of love rarely run their course a single time. “You have to trust there’ll be a next time,” writes Sheffield, though he knows some day there won’t be. “There’ll always be more songs to sing.”
Carly Lewis is a Toronto-based writer whose work has appeared in Vice, The Walrus and the Atlantic.