Why We Broke Up, by Daniel Handler, art by by Maira Kalman, 354 pp, RL: TEEN
There are so many incredible things about Why We Broke Up that I just don't know where to begin. I guess author Daniel Handler, otherwise known as Lemony Snicket, is a good place to start. Especially since, while both New York Times and Los Angeles Times gave favorable reviews to Why We Broke Up, I feel that neither reviewer went far enough in praising Handler's skill as a writer, especially a male writer conjuring a uniquely memorable, teenage girl voice and character as he does with Minerva (Min) Green. In all fairness, I am sure that neither reviewer had the blogosphere luxury of writing a review without word limits. Also, I feel that neither reviewer gets as excited as they should about the visual contributions of Maira Kalman, a favorite illustrator of mine for over twenty years now. Because I have so much to say about Maira Kalman and her work, I have written a mini-review that you can find at the end of my review of Handler's Why We Broke Up. One other spectacular thing about this book - the author quotes on the back. I realize that Handler is quite famous, nevertheless, I was very impressed with the ten authors who shared their break-up stories, which dovetails nicely with The Why We Broke Up Project, a very cool website that lets people share break-up stories and sorts them into categories ("I can't believe how disgusting you were," "I can't believe there was someone else," "I can't believe you wore that," "I'd take you back in a minute," and so on) and even has a page for celebrity (author) break-up stories. David Levithan, Neil Gaiman, Brian Selznick, MT Anderson, Judy Blundell, Jack Gantos and Holly Black are among the luminaries who share their stories on the back of the book - and the website. I also happen to know from our local teen librarian that the Project has donated many copies of the book to public libraries, which I am all in favor of.
The utterly simplistic plot description for Why We Broke Up is as follows: A box of mementos from her brief relationship is the driving force for Min as she writes a letter to her ex-boyfriend Ed Slaterton explaining why they broke up. As her best friend Al drives her around the city in the delivery truck for his father's Italian deli, Min goes through item after item, recounting the moment and the memory that accompanies each.While this concept, especially when you throw in superb illustrations of the mementos by an artist who is so keenly adept at giving a vibrancy and sometimes mystery to the mundane and uncommon items that make up the detritus of existence, is intriguing on its own, Handler turns it into a masterpiece by creating a character with depth and emotion, even if it is adolescent depth and emotion. Maybe I fancied myself a bit of a Min Green when I was in high school and that's why this character resonates with me so strongly. Maybe because I came of age in the era of John Hughes' teen movies like Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club the idea of an social outsider and a popular jock dating, however difficult and bittersweet it may be, is perfectly reasonable if not attractive to me due to cinematic conditioning. Whatever the reasons, I empathized with Min all the way and her voice was so realistic and convincing that I found myself frequently angry with Handler, a man, for being able to write a young woman's voice so goddam convincingly, as Min might say.
While Min herself is a compelling character, she is so fascinating that I found myself pausing as I read a chapter to marvel at Handler's writing. Min is a creative type. Don't call her "arty," she gets called "different" enough throughout the novel that the mere possibility of being described as "arty" by anyone sends Min into a near conniption fit. Min's greatest passion, shared by Al, is classic movies (although the two seem to know how to eat really well and throw a great party.) As she writes to Ed, Min links many of her and their experiences to scenes from movies she admires and you can imagine her doing this in conversation as well, especially when, toward the end of the novel, a friend intervenes in an attempt to get the estranged Al and Min talking again and, independent of each other, makes them swear on something valuable that they will start talking again. Min swears on her favorite movie, The Elevator Descends. Al swears on Gina Vadia in Three True Liars, although, upon learnign of this, Min notes that she knows Al only swore on the movie because of the sports car in it. The truly amazing thing about Why We Broke Up is that Handler creates every movie title, every scene and every screen star whole cloth from his imagination. From starlets to movie moguls, names like Lottie Carson, Miles De La Raz, P F Mailer, Theodora Sire and Alec Motto conjure up images. With movies like Two Pairs of Shoes, Greta in the Wild, Never by Candlelight and Verdict Written in Tears to places like Mayakovsky's Dream, the swanky Russian restaurant, an art house movie theater called The Carnelian, a diner called Lopsided's, Steam Rising (Min's third-favorite coffee place) and In the Cups (her second) and finally books like When the Lights Go Down: A Short Illustrated History of Film, musician Hawk Davies culinary delights like the Egg Cuber that makes square eggs (Ouch!) Handler creates a world that is every bit as fully formed, complete in depth and unique as the crazy fantasy world he created in his Series of Unfortunate Events. I was sucked in and mesmerized by Why We Broke Up in a way that I wasn't in any of the thirteen books in Handler's previous series, however Why We Broke Up has prompted me to revisit this series with a new appreciation for Handler's writing skill and world building.
Besides creating a culture for Min and her best friend Al to inhabit (and for Ed to gingerly, if not entirely whole-heartedly, embrace) Handler gives Min a memorable, frequently poetic voice and way of seeing the world. Initially, I tried to mark the more lovely passages to share with you here but my book became so overrun with notes and stickies that that I gave up. I'll try to share a few with you here, but know that this is but a sliver and by no means the best of Min's voice:
"It was the pen just giving up midway and scratching invisible ink scars on the paper or suiciding to leak on my hand,"
"the singer [of the Shrouded Skulls] eyelining around the room looking for the ingenue costumed in angel wings"
"It wasn't just that we were high school, me a junior and you a senior, with our clothes all wrong for restaurants like this, too bright and too rumpled and too zippered and too stained and too slapdash and awkward and stretched and trendy and desperate and casual and unsure and braggy and sweaty and spotty and wrong."
And, in a final stream-of-consciousness burst of self-deprecation, Min says of herself, "I clumsy around dropping things, my average grades and stupid interests, bad breath, pants tight in back, my neck too long or something, I'm sneaky and get caught, I'm snobby and faking it, I agree with liars, I say whatnot and think that's some clever thing."
Besides the marvelous world that Handler creates for his wonderful Min, the story of her romance with the co-captain of the basketball team is more than just a John Hughes movie and the glimpses into their two very different worlds almost makes you root for them even though we know how it ends at the start of the book - before the start of the book! Ed's life is basketball, his teammates, parties and girls and on the extreme sidelines, his sick mother and older sister who casually looks after him. He is handsome and something of a math genius and knows to send flowers after a fight. He has to learn that Min is the kind of girl who does not like to receive flowers, ever, for any reason. He has to learn that she is a virgin and that means something to her, means more than the back seat of a car or his bed while his sister and mother are out. And, for all his seeming oblivion, Ed does try. Their first date is a movie, Min's choice (and she buys her own ticket, another surprise to Ed) at the Carnelian. From there she takes him to her favorite places, a store that is open Saturdays from 7:30 - 9 am ONLY, teaches him to like coffee, and excites him into helping her plan a birthday party for Lottie Carson, the aging star of Greta in the Wild, when they think they see the actress leaving the theater after seeing one of her movies on their first date. Min tries to enter Ed's world as well, attending a basketball game and the celebratory bonfire afterwards when Ed's ex-girlfriends drunkenly goad her. Min develops a shaky relationship with Joan, Ed's big sister, also a film enthusiast. But, and perhaps this is because she is telling the story, perhaps it is because she has the self-interested tunnel vision that most teens have, despite the fact that she is different, Min never seems to learn too much about Ed and seems more dedicated to teaching him her ways - and maybe this is really why they broke up... Either way, this is a character and book that will stick in my head for a very long time. Thank you Mr Handler, thank you Ms Kalman, for Why We Broke Up a bittersweet delight.
ABOUT THE ARTIST:
I have loved the way Maira Kalman sees the world for a very long time now. Or, since 1990 at least. The colorful, slightly simplistic, "arty" (to use the word that Ed and his friends keep threatening to hurl at Min throughout Why We Broke Up) and special way that she sees her world brings a splash of joy to my usually humdrum suburban life. Kalman is like the Diane Keaton of illustration - full of style, always fun and colorfully off-kilter at times. My husband and I are both Talking Heads fans and were thrilled to be given Kalman's illustrated version of thier song "Stay Up Late" from their album Little Creatures, with cover art by Howard Finster, the folk artist with a style not too dissimilar from Kalman's. From there it was on to Max, the Poet and all his books (including a stuffed doll that has slips of poetry in the pockets of his trench coat.) Happily, Kalman continued her work into adult realms with her blogs, The Principles of Uncertainty and And the Pursuit of Happiness, both of which are gorgeous books filled with interesting images and ideas, the first of which is a sort of diary for a year in her life, the second being an illustrated book about American democracy that came together as Kalman traveled the country visiting historic sites. But, I'll let her work speak for her. Below is a photo of and self-portrait by the author, a New Yorker cover and all of her books. I hope looking at her work brings a renewed appreciation for the world around you as well as a sense of vividness, wonder and joy to your world as it does to mine.
Maira's Books for Kids:
Maira's Books for Adults: