A few years ago, I reviewed David Levithan's collection of short stories, HOW THEY MET. An incurable romantic, Levithan was the perfect person to write this series of vignettes about the early days of young love. Likewise, Daniel Handler (who's best known as Lemony Snicket), with his own blend of world-weariness and sardonic humor, is perhaps the best possible author of a book titled WHY WE BROKE UP.
"Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman prove that the end of things can be just as compelling as their beginning."
The premise of the novel is both similar and familiar. Min (don’t call her Minnie) is on her way to deliver her ex-boyfriend Ed a box, chock-full of the detritus of their brief but intense relationship. As she rides in a truck driven by her best friend Al, Min --- in a voice both bitter and funny --- tells the story of their love affair through these objects, adding her own commentary through the lens of what she knows now.
There's the bottle caps from the beers they drank during their first conversation; the origami-folded first note he sent her in class; the ticket stub from the movie they saw on their first date; and the condom wrapper from the night Min lost her virginity. Maira Kalman's witty full-color illustrations of each of these objects opens a chapter, followed by Min's narration of the surrounding events. Often, she comes to a new revelation or realization in the course of relating a seemingly simple story: "I gave you an adventure, Ed, right in front of you but you never saw it until I showed you, and that's why we broke up."
Min is pretty but not beautiful, the kind of girl whom many describe as "interesting" and Ed describes as "arty." She wants to be a film director, and often relates moments in her own life to scenes or characters from the classic films she loves but that Ed has never seen nor cares to see. Ed is a jock and co-captain of the football team; Min has never been the kind of girl to willingly sit through a basketball game, let alone a practice, but ever since she started dating him, she's whiling away her afternoons watching him run wind sprints and layup drills. Ed might come from a different world, but he is undeniably handsome and popular, and makes Min feel special. And then there's Ed's sister Joan, who seems genuinely fond of Min but warns Min about her brother practically right away.
All these things Min will miss now that they're breaking up (well, except for the basketball practice), but the inevitability of their parting seems clear to her now: "I'd ruin any day, all my days, for those long nights with you, and I did. But that's why right there it was doomed. We couldn't only have the magic nights buzzing through the wires. We had to have the days, too, the bright impatient days spoiling everything with their unavoidable schedules, their mandatory times that don't overlap, their loyal friends who don't get along, the unforgiven travesties torn from the wall no matter what promises are uttered past midnight, and that's why we broke up."
The book’s episodic nature, the odd-couple matchup, romantic ideals and candid first-person confessions make it seem a bit like the co-authored romances by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. Perhaps that's why, although Min's voice is winsome and true, although her story is funny and sad, although Min is the kind of girl most of us would love to spend an afternoon at the movies with, I found myself wishing, almost in spite of myself, for the other side of the story --- Ed's version of WHY WE BROKE UP. That being said, Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman prove that the end of things can be just as compelling as their beginning.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 21, 2012