Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
The back cover of Why We Broke Up warns that “Min and Ed’s story of heartbreak may remind you of your own”. I’d like to begin this review with some kind of witty observation about high school break-ups. Thing is, I can’t; I bring a different perspective. Min and Ed’s story of heartbreak doesn’t remind me of my own, because I don’t have such a story. I didn’t have a relationship, short or long, in high school or otherwise. I have never dumped nor been dumped, never amicably stopped seeing someone nor suffered hours of recriminations. I made a few half-hearted stabs at the whole thing, decided it wasn’t for me, and then gradually realized with some relief that it is in fact possible to opt-out of this whole crazy thing. So I lack any frame of reference for stories like this. That doesn’t stop me from pursuing them; I love love stories and stories about relationships and sex and everything that has to do with humans loving and hating on other humans. But I approach them from a different angle than many other readers might.
Maybe that’s why Why We Broke Up didn’t do much for me in the beginning. Because it certainly wasn’t Daniel Handler’s superb characterization or Maira Kalman’s utterly appropriate illustrations. This is not just a love letter; it is a love letter to love letters. Everything about this book, from its binding and glossy pages to the story and its construction and the illustrations that accompany each chapter, is high quality. The story itself is a nice spin on break-up tales: it is essentially one giant flashback organized roughly chronologically and loosely around objects that Min is returning to Ed in a break-up box. Though the objects provide a starting point, each chapter quickly pulls back and chronicles a specific moment or event in their relationship, with Min foreshadowing and reflecting on possible warning signs even as she celebrates the good parts too.
I assume that this central contradiction of relationships is something others find fascinating as well: in most cases, there is something good going on in a relationship. It’s the flame, after all, that keeps the love burning. Despite that goodness, though, something else brings the relationship to an end. And usually there is an awareness among parties that these relationships are not “forever”, as Min herself reflects at one point. She and Ed are young and chances are they will one day stop dating. But she employs the essential cognitive dissonance and puts this to one side and carries on until that inevitable moment when the break-up comes, perhaps sooner than she expected. Which brings us to the present, to Min writing the letter with her best friend, who mopes with unrequited love of her, by her side.
I like that Handler and Kalman do not make this a hatchet job of Ed, though my opinion of him is very poor indeed. They are careful to ground these characters in their context. This is a smaller town, a more conservative town, one where Christian and Jewish upbringings cause kids to reflect on whether or not losing their virginity is a worthwhile high school pursuit. Ed is very much a 17-year-old popular guy. I suspect in some ways he views Min as his manic pixie dream girl. He claims that he loves her, and I don’t know if that’s accurate (he probably doesn’t know either), but I think he is genuinely surprised to find out that she is hurt by his cheating. He knows it is wrong—hence why he hides it—but he has just never encountered someone who reacts like Min does. In this way, Handler and Kalman accurately portray the way we socialize young men to view women as interchangeable objects for sex and attention. In the end, Ed might view Min as a “different” type of distraction, but she is ultimately just another object to him—and when she is not around to fulfil his needs, be they emotional or physical, hey, Annette is right there outside his window. Convenience is king, amirite?
But I digress. Min mentions the good times as well as the bad, the ways in which dating Ed helped bring her out of a shell she had constructed around herself with the help of her friends. Min lives for (fictional) old movies, this obsession for cinema a useful shorthand for the intellectual introversion that allows her to ignore her physicality. She is not of Ed’s world and he is not of hers, and theirs is not a doomed or forbidden romance; this is not a story of starcrossed lovers. It’s a mis-match, one that everyone else seems painfully aware of. Their relationship is a plate spinning in the air, and the spectators are waiting for it to drop and shatter.
Along these lines, I never really saw what Min saw in Ed. I mean, I get that she saw something, but I didn’t like him from the start. I find this so odd, because it is from her perspective; we should see why she finds Ed attractive. Aside from the physical attraction, though, there doesn’t seem to be much that is unique about how Ed acts towards her.
I also had a hard time with the style of Min’s narration. The stream-of-consciousness, nearly-never-ending sentences are hard to read unless you really slow down and work your way through them. It comes off, in part, like Handler is trying too hard. I don’t know if this is intentional because he wants to make Min sound affected and semi-pretentious in the way such outsider teenagers like to see themselves. Reading the book, though, I cringed at parts that felt over the top. Maybe it’s the epistolary format reminding me of The Breakfast Club too, which is a good movie but also a pretentious one.
So for most of this book I was leaning towards 2 stars. It is OK but not great—would recommend to people who are not me, i.e., the younger teenage audience it’s probably intended for.
The last act improves the book, however. Ed cheating on Min is not a surprise, but Handler orchestrates the reveal so very well. The scene is set perfectly, as is the aftermath, for maximum pathos. I knew that something like this had to go down, and I was not disappointed. Min’s reaction is gratifying (to the reader) because unlike my struggle to identify the source of her feelings for Ed, this immediately feels real and true. Even though, as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, I’ve never gone through what Min has gone through, I get how she is feeling betrayed. And just like a twist at the end of a movie makes you think back and revise your opinion of once-cryptic scenes, this section retroactively makes Min’s attitude and tone more sensible. She rage-flips and then goes numb. This letter is supposed to be a dismissal of Ed, a nonchalant message to let him know that she is so over him—that is a lie and everyone involved knows it, but it’s one of those tacitly-accepted lies that no one is going to challenge right now.
The climax is also a moment where Kalman’s illustrations provide unique insight. Min nearly vandalizes a newspaper clipping on the wall of the flower shop after she discovers Ed’s infidelity. Handler doesn’t tell us it’s a clipping, just that Min sees something that drives home Ed’s dishonesty and that the shopkeeper doesn’t want her ruining it because he was a big fan. Without Kalman’s illustration depicting the clipping that announces Lottie Carlson’s death, this small exchange recedes into the background of the already-powerful and emotionally-charged scene. Thanks to Kalman, this moment is now burned into my memory of the book. While illustrated novels are not a gimmick I would like to see become popular, when they are used as effectively as they are here, it is a joy.
So Why We Broke Up managed to do that rare thing where a book redeems itself in its final moments. I think there are other readers who will enjoy this a lot more than me, but I am happy that I read it. I’m still not in love, but I’m not breaking up with it either.