Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman, Why We Broke Up

From last weekend’s column, Handler and Kalman on the end of a teenage romance.



Partnerships, when they end, leave physical debris. The movie and television tradition of ending relationships by returning one another’s possessions acknowledges this – physical objects may have a number of powerful memories attached to them.

I recently discovered The Books They Gave Me, a blog that collects stories of former relationships as documented by the books that partners exchanged, ranging from volumes of The Babysitters Club to rare first editions. In Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman’s Why We Broke Up, two books are exchanged by teenage couple Min and Ed. One is a recipe book titled Real Recipes from Tinseltown, bought in an odd little second-hand shop called Tip Top Goods.   The other is Why We Broke Up itself, ostensibly written by Min.

Min and Ed have broken up. Min drops off a box of items accumulated during the couple’s relationship and, with reference to each of these objects tells of the couple’s relationship and the circumstances in which it ended.

Under the pseudonym “Lemony Snicket”, Daniel Handler is the author of the darkly hilarious Series of Unfortunate Events books. Here he teams up with writer and illustrator Maira Kalman to tell the story of a teenage romance. Each chapter begins with one of Kalman’s bright, whimsical illustrations of an item from the box.

This is a classic story of opposites attracting. Min (short for Minerva) is “different”, as all Ed’s friends keep telling her; she wants to study film, her friends plan elaborate theme parties, and she knows nothing about basketball. Ed is a basketball player who has dated most of the popular girls at their high school, but he has hidden depths. It’s a story everyone has heard many times before, and the subject of countless movies.

Cinema is important here because, as mentioned above, Min loves films. At numerous points during the book she tries to explain her feelings in terms of obscure films – obscure within the universe of Why We Broke Up; Handler has seized the opportunity to create a whole set of fictional references. On their first date Min takes Ed to see a classic film, they sight someone who may be an old movie star, and the evening turns into a rather stalker-ish adventure that would not itself seem out of place in a movie. “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”. And Min’s recounting of the couple’s time together does often feel like a movie montage of small, remarkable adventures. “You know I want to be a director, but you could never truly see the movies in my head and that, Ed, is why we broke up”.

But the reader is not Min, and sometimes we can see more than she can, and her tendency to turn her story into a movie romance is often undercut. Stripped of the romance that Min gives it (but then, why should it be stripped of romance?) the reader can see that in many ways there’s nothing particularly remarkable about this break up. The incident that triggers the end of the relationship is about as mundane as it could possibly be. And yet, though Min ends every other chapter with “and that’s why we broke up”, this is never one of her reasons. It is only a symptom of a larger problem; that this is a different medium to a romantic movie, that reality is in the wrong genre. “We couldn’t only have the magic nights buzzing through the wire. We had to have the days too, the bright impatient days spoiling everything.”

None of this is to imply that this couple are mundane, or that Min’s perspective is entirely off. We’re given much to like about them both; but if they’re unique and interesting in the way that most people are, they’re also ordinary like most people. And that’s why they broke up.


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