Review: Why We Broke Up

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler, illustrated by Maira Kalman. Little, Brown. 2011. Reviewed from ARC and final copy from publisher. My teaser.

The Plot: Min Green and Ed Slaterton have broken up. She gives him a box: a box, full of objects from the time they dated, from October 5 to November 12. The arty girl (no, don’t call her that) and the jock. Along with the box is a letter, Min’s letter to Ed, explaining — why we broke up. Explaining to Ed, explaining to herself, why they got together and why they broke up.

The Good: This is Min’s story, her long, glorious, honest letter to Ed about how and why they got together, and fell in love, despite — or maybe because of — being so different. Ed, a jock, popular; Min, who loves old films and coffee with friends.

Min sends a box of objects to Ed; and I love that Min does this, that she is the girl who holds onto these items and then sends them Ed and I wonder — will Ed read the letter? Will he go through the box and match the things to the letter, remember as she remembers? Or will the box go into the closet, under the stairs, in the trash?

Each object, each bottle cap and note, is illustrated in full color by Maira Kalman. (More on the book design and the ARC at my teaser). The final copy is gorgeous; the paper, thick and fine and smooth, deserving of Kalman’s illustrations. The attention to detail is stunning –under the jacket, the book cover is scattered rose petals. The endpapers (front and back both unique) are the beginning and end of the story. I first read this in advance review copy; my second time was the final book. Having all the artwork, and all the artwork in color, didn’t just make the book prettier. It also added an element of wonder, of guessing, of wondering just what is the significance of the item shown. Some have great meaning; others do not; and that is part of the reality of life and love and adds to the depth of the book. Sometimes a protractor is just a protractor.

Why did Ed and Min break up? Like the films Min loves, on one level, the reason is surprising and unexpected. On another, the romance is doomed from the start, with all the clues and reasons laid out from the beginning, making one wonder not why they broke up but why they managed to stay together for as long as they did.

Min and Ed are in two different cliques and two different worlds. Since Min is telling the story, it is always her point of view, and Ed’s world of basketball and bonfires and beer seems almost a cliche at times. Min cannot help revealing clues to show that Ed’s life is as three dimensional as her own; because, really, otherwise would she ever have given him a second look? And is her old films and coffee clique any less cliche? But back to Ed —  Min goes to a couple of basketball practices, playing the role of good, supportive girlfriend, and Min tells it to the reader and Ed to say, look what I did, I went to your boring practice, for you I was almost one of those girls who go to practice just to watch their boyfriends. While this is never a book about Min learning to appreciate basketball, the reader sees just how much Ed’s life and identity revolves around basketball, that it takes time and effort and work for him to be co-captain, and the reader wonders, even though Min never does, if a team gives Ed the support and family he doesn’t have at home. Handler gives the reader enough so they can see things Min does not. Or, rather, that Min cannot, because she is both trying to figure out who she is and also working through the hurt of her breakup.

And Min — oh, Min. Min, with her love of movies, not just any movies but old movies. Don’t bother IMDB’ing the films and stars she mentions, because they are films just for the book, vaguely familiar, but not quite. Min loves films and sees her world through them, views life, sometimes, as a film, creating events and parties as if it were a scene. (Ruby Oliver would approve.) It is clear that, even though Min may not realize it, that she watches the films in part to be The  Girl Who Watches Old Films. Refreshingly, Min is no mini expert, has yet to learn terms like avant garde because until a friend lends her a book, she hasn’t read about or studied film. I like how even though this is about how Min and Ed broke up, it’s also about Min growing as a person as shown by her learning more about movies.

I confess, after reading Why We Broke Up and put it back on the shelf, I think about Min and Ed as if it were real. What crazy party scheme is Min thinking up now? Doe Ed still drink his coffee the same way Min does? And because of that — because I care both about Min and Ed — this is a Favorite Book Read in 2011.


5 thoughts on “Review: Why We Broke Up

  1. Michelle, it’s stunning. And, it also is one of those books that sticks with me, as if I know the characters.

    Adrienne, let me know what you think.


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