With a Song in His Heart

The significance of a mix tape—think back to the '80s and early '90s, before digital this and iPod that—was huge. A mix tape was this carefully selected, tailor-made collection of songs, but more than that, the emotional statement of the songs connected the giver and recipient. You could gauge a warming romance on the horizon by the mix tape—thrilling at the sight of the names of songs handwritten by the object of your affection. A mix tape was something special. The songs held serious weight inside those plastic cassettes. And cassettes were ultimately the lasting love letters to each other that Rob Sheffield could hold onto after his 31-year-old wife, Renée, died unexpectedly from a pulmonary embolism just after she'd had her morning coffee and toast. It was 1997 and they'd only had five years together.

In "Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time," Sheffield writes elegantly about his young wife's sudden death without turning it into a depressing tale of love stolen away too soon. A Rolling Stone contributing editor and a self-professed music geek, Sheffield was the shy, skinny kid who didn't think he could land the cool chick. Until he did. They married and were inseparable—inextricably linked by a shared love for songs and the indelible marks that melodies, music and lyrics leave on each moment.

Sheffield was awestruck from the get-go by Renée Crist, a girl from Virginia who might as well have been from Mars for the mystery and bewilderment she inspired in him. What really sealed the deal was that she liked the same band (Big Star) that he did. "How cool was this girl?" Sheffield writes. "She was an Appalachian country girl from southwestern Virginia. She had big, curly-brown hair, little round glasses and a girlish drawl. I just knew her favorite Go-Go was Jane Wiedlin." Sheffield writes with such aching remembering, you feel like you are invading his privacy, but there's enough, too, of the feeling as though he's outside of himself, just retelling the details that made his wife his life, his heroine. Through the thousands of songs and countless mix tapes (one they'd made for their wedding, one for washing the dishes called "The Comfort Zone," one to fall asleep to at night ...) they are still connected, even as Sheffield tries to make sense of what has happened, why it happened and what to do now, finally coming to the realization that "I would have to relearn how to listen to music, and that some of the music we'd loved together I'd never be able to hear again."

He tells of the long nights sitting in an empty apartment after she died, drinking ginger ale and eating only peanut butter sandwiches and frozen steak burritos, and of the nightmares he has of her trying to get back home that wake him from shattered sleep. And it's the truth of those details that makes this memoir so touching. Here's the other thing; Sheffield is funny. Wry and sardonic, even in his suffering, he's the tragic romantic who never gets overwrought. You fall in love with them as a couple. She was his "lion-hearted, take-charge Southern girl" and he was her adoring, biggest fan. Together, Rob and Renée were just a pair of music lovers tearing down the highway of life with Big Star, Pavement, George Jones and everyone in between blasting in their ears.