Here’s what we learn about Renée Crist, Rob Sheffield’s wife, 14 pages into Love Is a Mix Tape: “Renée died on May 11, 1997, very suddenly and unexpectedly, at home with me, of a pulmonary embolism. She was thirty-one.” Even with this knowledge, though, the memoir’s narrative is so light and joyous that it comes as a shock when Renée dies halfway through.
Sheffield writes about their life together with such excitement that her death never looms; its inevitability fades. We meet Sheffield as an awkward kid in Boston and follow him through high school and college. When he encounters Crist, they’re both grad students in Charlottesville, Virginia. We see them fall in love and get married and go on road trips and argue and watch TV. The boy-meets-girl stuff might not be anything new, but Sheffield tells the old story with an impressionistic warmth. And so when she dies, it’s a sudden jerk out of a hazy dream. It’s a hard book to finish.
Sheffield builds his story around 15 mix tapes that he and Renée made. The device would be insufferably precious in almost any other writer’s hands. But Sheffield is a music critic (as was Crist), and the constant talk of music never feels like a self-conscious distancing technique; it’s the prism through which the two saw the world. Sheffield’s love for Renée and for music are so tightly intertwined that it’s a wonder he was still able to listen to anything after she died. But he kept all those old tapes, and has built an enormously moving book out of them.