Archive for July, 2012

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler, Art by Maira Kalman — A Review

Why We Broke Up tells the story of a doomed high school romance between Min, an art-house cinema obsessed, sugared-coffee-guzzling misfit named for the Roman goddess Minerva and Ed, the dreamy serial monogamist co-captain of the basketball team (Go Beavers!).  As the title suggests, the reader knows from the outset that the budding romance, narrated by Min, is fated to implode in a few short weeks.  Min recounts their story through a description of the significance behind each item in a box of relationship mementos she is preparing to leave with a thud on Ed’s doorstep.  While each object’s explication leads to its own independent reason for the destruction of the relationship, the real mystery of the book is not why the couple broke up, but what made them fall for each other in the first place.

so obscure!

Min’s constant obscure film references are at once alienating and endearing, giving the reader their first glimpse into what Ed sees in her.  Like Ed, we want to be part of her avant-garde and screwball comedy-filled world, to understand each reference and say “yes, how apt, this moment in your life is like that scene between those characters.”  As a reader I had to hold myself back from writing down the film titles thinking “Maybe I’ll watch them all and then re-read it.”

Min is, in a way, the classic outsider character.  She has three main friends, people who “get” her, but most of the other characters are always calling her ‘different.’  Usually it’s implied that this difference is a good thing, particularly when contrasted with the girls Ed normally dates, who I actually ended up feeling sorry for after all the ways in which they are basically called dime-a-dozen.  Whether this is intentional or not, it serves to remind us that even though these girls may not be ‘different’ in the way that Min is (not liking the taste of beer, not wearing the ‘slutty’ version of a Halloween costume, being bored out of her mind at Ed’s basketball games), they have suffered through the same emotions, the same infatuation and rejection at the hands of Ed Slaterton that Min has.  When it comes to experiencing heartbreak, Min is not special.

and they seemed like such a good match!

As the non-narrator, Ed feels like a dramatically less developed character, something which may be an intentional depiction of the fact that Min has convinced herself she ‘knows’ him, when really she has only a vague idea of what Ed is actually like.  In the first hundred pages Ed is not only brutally dull, but also, kind of a jerk, always rubbing Min’s friends, and the reader, the wrong way with his sense of entitlement, lack of boundaries and adolescent jock homophobia.  I couldn’t help but get the sense that although his interest in Min at first seems genuine, the only real interest she could have in him is the shine of dwelling in high school obscurity and then suddenly finding herself on the arm of the popular boy.  To risk committing Min’s own reader-alienating over-referencing act; there is something very Rory and Dean (Gilmore Girls) about the start of the relationship, if Dean had been a bit of a dick.  Min is quick to mention a previous boyfriend, but her obvious romantic inexperience and naiveté feels like an air-raid siren going off, the reader just wanting to shout the relationship version of “duck and cover!”

One aspect of Ed’s story that is never fully explored is the implication that his mother is suffering from a terminal illness.  We never meet the mother, but Ed’s extremely likeable, hip sister has moved home to help run the household and care for her.  Although this portion of the plot should help instill some sympathy for Ed’s character, it fails to, as, throughout the novel, he never expresses any deep emotions about this or other issues in his life.*

As the story goes on the reader finally begins to see the little connections, the sweetnesses, the “you understand this when no one else did”s of the relationship, but they still feel one-sided, the truth being that Min just isn’t interested in any of the things that Ed enjoys and, most of his participation in things she enjoys seems equally begrudging.  Although I’m a firm believer in the adage that Opposites Attract, I also believe that to stay together, those opposites need to share at least some common interests, or, to channel Min’s referencing act again, a Doc Ock and Rosalie Octavius (Spider-Man 2) style fascination with what they can learn from each others’ differences.  Without these qualities, one can’t help but think that Min and Ed’s attraction is, well, mainly physical.

me in high school, what’s not to love?

I come to Min and Ed’s story as a woman about to emerge into her thirties, remembering the little false loves of my high school experience, before the advent of geek-chic or t-shirts sporting the slogan “talk nerdy to me.”  I come to it with the memory of the self-convincing, the moments of “maybe he meant that” of “maybe he would be worth it.”  As the clever tagline and blurbs on the book’s jacket suggest “Min and Ed’s story of heartbreak may remind you of your own.”  In my experience, the real heartbreak of high school love stories isn’t generally two people leaving each other, it’s at least one of the people realizing how much they have deceived themselves, something Ed and Min’s story has in spades.

It would be easy to look at Ed and Min’s story and call it simple, pointless infatuation, a quirky outsider girl falling for a popular bad boy who she, stereotypically, gives everything to, only to find herself horribly betrayed.  As a, somewhat, older woman, my heart has the mothering impulse, wanting to tell Min and other high school girls that it’s not worth it.  But, in the end, I don’t think the message of Why We Broke Up is “don’t give your heart away,” or “don’t give your heart away too quickly” or even “don’t lose your virginity to a meat-headed jock.”  Rather, I think the message is something more complicated.  That, for most of us, having our hearts crushed is unavoidable.  That someday, it will happen.  And you may hate the person who crushed it and spend the rest of your days regretting every second you spent with them, but that this coronary pulverization is part of the metamorphosis that helps us reach adulthood.  Realizing how much we can kid ourselves, how much we can risk and lose to another, helps us realize who we actually are and what, in a healthy relationship, we want to hold on to.  Daniel Handler’s novel isn’t the best written YA book I’ve read this year (Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan), or even the one that is most truthful about the human experience (The Fault in Our Stars by John Green), but it is the one that most made me look back at my high school and undergraduate selves with understanding, camaraderie, and thanks.

Incidentally, the novel has also spawned an interesting tumblr:

*An interesting follow-up project might be to tell the story of Why We Broke Up from Ed’s point of view.  I can’t help but think there is more going on in his side of the tale than boredom and hormones.  While Min is clearly the wronged party and depicting the story from only her viewpoint makes it more relatable for those of us who have had similar experiences, my mind is still nagged by the two-dimensional nature of Ed’s character.  Jerk or not, I wouldn’t mind getting to know him a little better.


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Pegasus by Robin McKinley – Bad Cover, Smart Book

I will start by saying that I love Robin McKinley’s books.  At ages twelve and thirteen The Blue Sword was second only to the work of Tamora Pierce in my heart.  As an adult I still rate Deerskin as one of the best fairy tale adaptations ever written and Sunshine as the best vampire novel I have ever read.  Traditionally the covers on McKinley’s work have been very appropriate, drawing in exactly the type of reader who would be likely to enjoy the cadence of her language, the gentle interweaving of steely characters and adventurous plots.  Imagine my dismay when I was confronted with the British cover for Pegasus, with its ridiculously out-of-context tagline, also the first line of the book: “Because she was a princess she had a Pegasus.”

Faced with this cover it took some determination to order in my copy of Pegasus, particularly given the looks I was receiving from my non-YA-reading bookseller colleagues.  Nevertheless, I trust Robin McKinley not to let me down.  She didn’t.

The trouble with this cover design for Pegasus, particularly with the misguided use of the first sentence of the book as a tagline, is that it projects entirely the wrong image of the novel.  This is a cover that twines one curl around its finger while wearing a fluffy pink dress and carrying a basket of kittens.  While this doesn’t make it a bad cover per se, it does make it a bad cover for this book.  Pegasus is just not that type of story, the main character, the princess Sylviaanel (Sylvi) is not that type of princess and the pegasi* in the novel are not pretty winged horses.

Anyone reading past the incongruous first line of the novel will discover that in addition to being about friendship and family, Pegasus is mostly a story about history and power, politics and culture clash.  The somewhat Catalogue of Ships-esque beginning, which recounts the history of Sylvi’s land and the treaty created between her ancestors and the pegasi, would be enough to turn off most readers who expect what the cover promises.   In truth, Pegasus is more like a YA version of The Left Hand of Darkness in its presentation of a human befriending a member of a different sentient species and attempting to understand and internalize a culture and mindset that is fundamentally different from their own.  A more appropriate cover might have shown Sylvi in her training garments, shortsword in hand, the main Pegasus, Ebon, at her shoulder with his intelligent eyes gazing out and wings half-raised in defense.

What makes human-pegasus connection in the novel difficult is the inability of the two species to properly communicate with each other.  With the exception of the human magicians and the pegasi shamans, few can understand more than a word or two in each other’s languages.  Although this is partly due to the incompatibility of the mostly telepathic and gesture-based pegasi language with human speech, it quickly becomes apparent that something else may be to blame.

In Pegasus, when royal humans turn 12 they are ceremonially and magically bound to one pegasus.  This binding is meant to both symbolically strengthen the alliance between the two species, and to allow the two individuals to converse slightly more effectively.  When Sylvi is presented with her bond-mate Ebon, the pair discovers that they can communicate fluently within their minds.  While one would expect this unprecedented discovery to be an instant blessing, the reality of the novel is much more complex.  The inability of the two species to communicate has completely shaped the humans’ culture, including the determination of which magicians receive the highest prestige as translators.  Sylvi and Ebon’s surprising talent is a threat to their species’ way of life and their friendship has immediate powerful opponents as a result.  With so much at stake both between the two species and within the human kingdom, the novel dances between ethnography and courtly intrigue, in some ways like a melding of Ellen Kusher’s adult fantasy novels and Patricia Wrede’s YA.  The result is unique among teen novels in a way that I found rather delightful, but which may also present challenges when it comes to finding the right readership.

The reason why this novel’s mis-match of cover to content needles me so badly is that it may keep potential new McKinley fans from ever picking Pegasus up.  Likewise, those individuals who do examine Pegasus based on what the cover promises may never read past the stumbling block of the history section the novel begins with.

All I can say is, I take solace in the fact that many teen readers are less put off by a bad cover than twenty and thirty-something booksellers are.

*Different sources I’ve encountered have suggested that the plural of Pegasus is either “Pegasus” or “Pegasuses” but McKinley uses the more elegant “Pegasi.”

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