Why We Broke Up

book by Daniel Handler

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I was in a workshop in grad school and the workshop leader asked, “Why do you write?” She was asking for a grander summation of what we write for and the answer came more easily for me than I thought. I’m interested in and writing at love in all of its horrible and wonderful variations. I wrote romantic comedies for years, trying to get into the nitty gritty of that first blush, when things don’t work out, trying to get to the center of the horrible overwhelming awkwardness of dating and falling in love. My first novel is a romantic tragedy about trying to make love work when one of you is dead. My next about how making life choices despite love can screw things up—for generations.

So Why We Broke Up is totally up my alley. I’m not sure how Daniel Handler manages to fully capture the voice of a teenage girl—being a dude and all–but Min’s voice is genuine, immediate, awkward, terrified, clever, funny and fully herself. The book is in second person—only not. Second person irritates me for long patches, but Handler uses it as a launching point for our story. Ed, the object of Min’s love and the reason for her broken heart is the “you” in this story as Min recounts the relationship—ostensibly in a letter. But while Min addresses Ed directly, Handler is careful to reserve second person for dramatic effect and to flow back into Min’s first person account of things.

Min is delivering a box of memories collected from her relationship with Ed, the high school basketball co-captain. Each chapter begins with a picture of said object, illustrated beautifully, in vibrant color by Maira Kalman. Movie tickets, beer caps, rose petals are the detritus of a relationship clearly gone awry. I had a bit of burning covet over this device, as I’m enamored of the way physical objects can become milestones in emotional territory and I touched on it in a piece of flash fiction. But there’s covet and there’s “wow you really wrote the shit out of that.” Handler really wrote the shit out of that and with the bright and painted images given extra weight through the stories behind them, my hat is off.

Another device I totally covet, is Min’s world of old movie references. This was an affliction of my teenage years—okay, and my twenties—and maybe a little bit now. In the novel I’m revising, a woman in her twenties is plagued by the same tendency as Min—to transpose movie life onto real life, her affection for movie actors onto real people. But Handler took it one step further and creates a fictional world of old movies complete with titles, plots, stars and real-life tales. There is such singularity to each of Min’s movie references, sometimes deliberate, sometimes off-hand, that they have a truly authentic ring: “Lottie Carson sleeps in the igloo alone and Will Ringer, frost on the beard he’ll shave off for her, because she asks him to, because he loves her—he sleeps with the dogs.” (p.29.) In that one line, Handler creates not only a vivid old film, but Min’s mooning, breathless, girlish and romantic lens through which to view it. Handler could have taken real older movies and thinly disguised them, but that would have taken the reader off the page. Instead, he creates these hilarious and delightful fictional movies that broaden the fabulousness of his main character.

But the book goes beyond devices and is a terrific reminder that while we can litter our prose with clever asides, funny moments and vivid objects, the characters at the book’s center and the various ways in which they do and don’t get what they want are where the heart of a story lies.  This book has a strong beating heart and it is Min’s. She carries us from first infatuation, through awkward love, to social pressure and inevitable breakup in terrifying, exhilarating, mortifying and genuine moments. Every secondary character in her life, from her best friend and gourmet cook Al, to Ed’s wry and clever sister or his worldly slightly trashy ex-girlfriend is vivid and genuine. While these are high school characters we recognize enough for them to resonate, they are their own people on the page.

And while Min has these “quirky” (I hate that word, usually applied in a condescending way by people who find quirky “cute” or who say “interesting” when they really mean “weird”—but would doubtless be applied by one of Ed’s friends, and therefore fits) qualities, it is her raw, close emotion that makes her so real. Like any rapidly growing exposed-nerve teen she can become consumed by her own self-loathing doubt, “I’m not a romantic, I’m a half-wit. Only stupid people would think I’m smart. I’m not something anyone should know. I’m a lunatic wandering around for scraps, I’m like every single miserable moron I’ve scorned and pretended I didn’t recognize.” (337)

Handler creates such a balance of clever and real, hilarity and heartbreak that coveting can only get us so far. Time to get back to work.

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