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:  http://whywebrokeupproject.tumblr.com/

*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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