Reviewing Why We Broke Up by David Handler and Maira Kalman
January 4, 2013 § 4 Comments
I’m telling you why we broke up, Ed. I’m writing it in this letter, the whole truth of why it happened. And the truth is that I goddamn loved you so much.
Talk surrounding Why We Broke Up isn’t really about the strength of its story. The story is old and somewhat tired – boy meets girl, things go swimmingly for a stretch and then they don’t. But what Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) does with this old formula, along with the voice he adopts to tell it, gives this particular tale of teenage heartbreak some merit.
Why We Broke Up is Min’s farewell letter to her recently ex-boyfriend Ed. The precise circumstances that led to their split aren’t clear from the outset, but Min seems to be harbouring a lot of anger. Accompanied by a box full of items she collected during their brief relationship, Min’s letter details why the ill-fated pair did – you guessed it – break up. Through Min, Handler creates a vivid glimpse of the dramatics of high school, deftly capturing the intimacy, excitement and confusion of first love.
In her letter, Min explains the significance of each item that she’s dumping on Ed’s doorstep: the two bottle caps from the night she met him, the ticket stub from their first date, a note, an empty match box, a protractor, a toy truck etc. Each item (illustrated by Maira Kalman) represents a memory and the reader is privy to all of them. Interspersed amongst her recollections, Min, an aspiring director, calls on the imagery and plots of old films (all made up by Handler for the purpose of the novel) to better express her feelings.
Handler does well to get into the head of a teenage girl, creating a realistic character in Min. Unfortunately, her and Ed’s relationship that lasts “from October 5 until November 12” seems too brief to justify a 300-page letter to an ex explaining why you broke up, especially when you both know why.
Min’s letter reads almost like a diary entry as she attempts to put the pieces together; it’s not about Ed or what he did or didn’t do, but about the signs Min missed that she can only appreciate in retrospect. That said, the fact that Min made the decision to not only write this letter to Ed, but to actually give it to him seems very juvenile.
Min is about 16-years-old, has had a boyfriend before, but falls head over heels in love with Ed within a few short days. Then after they split, she spends the next month – the same amount of time as what was spent together – mulling over her broken heart, finally deciding that the perfect way to end that chapter of her life is to write a long, long, long letter explaining just how miserable, angry and hurt she is and drop it at his door.
Dude, let it go! Don’t give him ammo! Don’t let him think you’re a sad sap who’s been moping around the house ever since the split, periodically pulling collected objects from a box to sob over as you question where it all went wrong. Doing that is fine, just don’t tell him all about it. Have some self-respect!
It’s true, I haven’t been 16 in some time. Maybe I’ve grown out of the melodrama. I just found the premise bizarre given that Min inadvertently tells us time and time again that she is clever – and she is! She’s funny, insightful, poetic, creative, so why on earth does she think this letter is a good idea?
And that was my major problem with Why We Broke Up. Not the clichéd storyline, the running sentences or even the short length of time that Ed and Min spent together, but that it took the form of a letter to the ex and a box of junk. It’s a bit of a Catch-22 that, because the thing that differentiates Why We Broke Up from the rest of the teen romance books out there is also that which renders it nearly unbearable.
Or maybe it just hits too close to home?