Going, going, gone...bidding war for the novel that’s an auction catalogue

First-timer’s book that charts the course of a doomed love affair is a word-of-mouth sensation
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The Independent Culture

It traces the anatomy of a doomed romance, its highs and lows reflected in the shared possessions of a couple who have since parted and whose valuables are now up for sale in an auction catalogue.

And despite the absence of a literary publicity campaign, Leanne Shapton’s innovative first novel, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, is fast becoming the biggest word-of-mouth sensation of 2009.

The illustrated book is in such demand approaching Christmas that it has been re-printed twice by Bloomsbury in just over six weeks – a highly unusual occurrence for a first-time novelist.

The story, a partially autobiographical account by Shapton, a 36-year-old Canadian-born art director at the New York Times, charts the doomed arc of a love affair between the central characters, Doolan, a food writer, and Morris, a British photographer.

Their romance is revealed through a series of 1,332 lots offered for sale at a fictitious auction house on Valentine’s Day, 2009. Each lot, including photographs (Shapton’s friends posed as Doolan and Morris), emails, letters, clothes, a cookery book and a set of aprons, reveals key moments of their passion for each other.

The reader gets to know Doolan and Morris through these shared personal effects, which are being sold off now their relationship has run its course.

The book’s rights have been bought in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Norway, Greece, Korea and Brazil. It has also been optioned for a film adaptation starring Brad Pitt and Natalie Portman. Julia Roberts had bid for the rights but lost out.

Despite Important Artifacts’ initial success in America, where it was launched in February, it did not attract a British publisher for several months, until Bloombury’s editor-in-chief, Alexandra Pringle, realised its potential.

Ms Pringle, who also brought Elizabeth Gilbert’s highly successful, Eat, Pray, Love, to Britain, said that once Bloomsbury realised how quickly the first print run was selling, it rushed out reprints.

“What’s happened is that it’s become a world of mouth book and it’s taken off more quickly than we had anticipated,” she said.

“I first read it on a plane and I was smitten. It doesn’t take long to read but it is just so touching that I was already thinking of buying it for this person or that person. I read every since word, including the estimated prices of the items on sale. It is visual as well as Leanne Shapton has taken the photographs.”

She added that she had received emails from novelists praising the novel, including Raffaella Barker, and William Boyd’s wife, Susan Boyd, who had bought 10 copies as Christmas gifts, as well as the columnist India Knight.

Independent booksellers including Foyles in central London and the new Notting Hill bookshop Lutyens & Rubinstein have had to re-stock the book after it sold out and several notable writers have bought multiple copies, according to Ms Pringle.

Shapton, who is engaged to James Truman, the British former editorial director of Condé Nast, said in an interview that she wrote the book “in a way to clear the way for the relationship I am now in”. She has previously written a graphic book called Was She Pretty? about a woman’s obsession with her boyfriend’s former girlfriends. She is currently writing her next “concept novel”.

Important Artifacts

An excerpt

*LOT 1104

Birthday presents, card, and note. One striped men’s shirt, label reading “Steven Alan”, size M. A gift certificate, unused, for Italian cooking lessons at the Culinary Institute. One Wimpy’s ketchup squeezer. A paperback copy of the screenplay for Blow Up by Michelangelo Antonioni (Modern Film Scripts, Simon & Schuster, 1971). Homemade birthday card from Doolan to Morris, dated September 6,2003. Card reads: “The catsup is for Hal of the past, the shirt is for Hal of the present, the lessons for Hal of the future. Happy 40th!” A handwritten note in ballpoint, in Morris’s script, reads in part: “Darling, Am sorry about last night, please please don’t get offended about the cake, I’ve always loathed meringue and thought I’d mention it. It looked great! And please understand I needed to spend my 40th with Jase and Toby – guy thing, God knows– but was having a wobble. Thanks for your understanding...” $50-$100 Included in lot is a photograph of a large pavlova, 4 x 6 in.