Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman

Another teen novel in which an ordinary girl finds herself in a relationship with the school basketball star, despite their differences. Ho hum.

What’s that you say? Why We Broke Up was written by Daniel Handler? The man what created Lemony Snicket? And with paintings by the always-excellent Maira Kalman? AND it won a Printz Honor? Huh, this might be worth checking out after all…

So I did. And I’m afraid to say that I was mildly disappointed.

But let’s back up. Why We Broke Up is framed as a letter—a very long letter—written by Min Green, high school junior, to her ex-boyfriend, Ed Slaterton, high school senior. A letter which details why they broke up (hence the title). A letter which, mind you, accompanies a box full of memorabilia of the time that the two spent together. Movie tickets, a shred of a poster for a Halloween dance, a coin from a foreign country, a protractor. (Yes, a protractor.) Min recounts the relationship, from pre-start to post-finish, as organized through these objects, and although she repeatedly comes up with excuses for the split (the phrase “that’s why we broke up” ends a good half of the book’s chapters), what actually happened isn’t actually clear until close to the end.

It isn’t terribly interesting, either. Inasmuch as what causes the breakup might be realistic, realism is the last thing that one expects from the ridiculous imagination that conjured A Series of Unfortunate Events (not to mention several magical-realist adult novels—The Basic Eight, Watch Your Mouth, and Adverbs). There’s also the fact that Handler’s prose remains somewhat baroquely weird, and while it’s never unpleasant, it doesn’t quite ring true coming out of the mouth of a teenage girl. (This ties in interestingly with the argument in the comment section of Kelly Fineman’s recent post on John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, which I bought infinitely more for some reason. The two novels, incidentally, contain a number of parallels: both are written by men but narrated by young women; both feature basketball-playing male leads; both include protagonists who find themselves hunting down reclusive cultural figures (a novelist in The Fault in Our Stars, a forgotten actress from the Golden Age of Hollywood in Why We Broke Up).)

This is not to say that Why We Broke Up is a bad book—it’s not. It just isn’t as good as I was expecting from Handler. Or, for that matter, from Kalman, whose contribution is limited to paintings at the start of each chapter, showing the object around which the segment is centered. (She also provides amusing endpapers.) I guess I was hoping for the art to be more intrusive, for lack of a better word.

The question that lingers in my mind is this, though: was Handler actually attempting to parody the conventions of teenage romances? They’re all there—the coupling that crosses social strata, the armies of trusted friends on each side, the cool older sibling (is Ed’s sister named Joan in reference to Joan Cusack, who played this role in Say Anything…?), the pal with a crazy method of transportation, the inevitable all-school parties, the anguished declaration of love from a friend. All that’s missing is a Simple Minds or Psychedelic Furs song.

(Note: do make sure to check out the book's website, The Why We Broke Up Project. For it, the authors collected breakup stories submitted by readers and authors. I'm particularly fond of the one submitted by Mo Willems: "You know that old expression, 'Men Are From Mars, Women Are People Who Hate Me, Belittle Me, Take Pleasure In Pointing Out My Faults, And Think I’m Ugly'? It was like that, which was too bad. I mean, hey, I’M FROM MARS. That ought to count for SOMETHING, right?”

Indeed, Mo. It ought to.)


Colleen said...

Whoa - the similarities between Handler and Green are really interesting! (If there weren't so many pictures of the two of them I would wonder if Green & Handler were the same person.)

I liked "Why We Broke Up" a lot, but mostly because it reminded me of my best friend's doomed cross-clique relationship with a football player when we were teenagers. She was better off without him but man - worst dance ever. (He broke up with her to Journey's "Open Arms" as his friends egged him on.) (I wish I was making that up.) (Even more I wish I didn't still remember it!)

Erin said...

Yeah, I was mildly disappointed in this, too. His adult and children's novels are some of my favorites, so I had such high hopes/expectations....!