Why We Broke Up - Daniel Handler, Maira Kalman Why We Broke Up is the letter Min (short for “Minerva”) Green writes to Ed (co-captain of Hellman High’s basketball team) Slaterton when their star-crossed relationship ends as tragically as one might expect. Min reminded me a lot of Handler’s previous angsty teen protagonist Flannery Culp from [b:The Basic Eight|10997|The Basic Eight|Daniel Handler|http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51TTXG3YVML._SL75_.jpg|518224], which was the first Handler novel I read and remains my favorite. Both are teen-age girls. Both hang out with friends who desperately try to be insouciant, worldly, cynical observers of life. And underneath both are extraordinarily fragile souls. In Min’s case, her fragility is exposed in the last pages of the letter when she pours out all the rage, pain and terror that lured her into the relationship to begin with:

And the truth is that I’m not, Ed, is what I wanted to tell you. I’m not different. I’m not arty like everyone says who doesn’t know me, I don’t paint, I can’t draw, I play no instrument, I can’t sing, I’m not in plays, I wanted to say, I don’t write poems. I can’t dance except tipsy at dances. I’m not athletic, I’m not a goth or a cheerleader, I’m not treasurer or co-captain. I’m not gay and out and proud, I’m not that kid from Sri Lanka, not a triplet, a prep, a drunk, a genius, a hippie, a Christian, a slut, not even one of those super-Jewish girls with a yarmulke gang wishing everyone a happy Sukkoth. I’m not anything, this is what I realized with to Al crying with my hands dropping the petals but holding this too tight to let go. I like movies, everyone knows I do – I love them – but I will never be in charge of one because my ideas are stupid and wrong in my head. There’s nothing different about that, nothing fascinating, interesting, worth looking at. I have bad hair and stupid eyes. I have a body that’s nothing. I’m too fat and my mouth is idiotic ugly. My clothes are a joke, my jokes are desperate and complicated and nobody else laughs. I talk like a moron, I can’t say one thing to talk to people that makes them like me, I just babble and sputter like a drinking fountain broken. My mother hates me, I can’t please her. My dad never calls and then calls at the wrong time and sends big gifts or nothing, and all of it makes me scowl at him, and he named me Minerva. I talk shit about everybody and then sulk when they don’t call me, my friends fall away like I’ve dropped them out of an airplane, my ex-boyfriend thinks I’m Hitler when he sees me. I scratch at places on my body, I sweat everywhere, my arms, the way I clumsy around dropping things, my average grades and stupid interests, bad breath, pants tight in back, my neck too long or something. I’m sneaky and get caught, I’m snobby and faking it, I agree with liars, I say whatnot and think that’s some clever thing. I have to be watched when I cook so I don’t burn it down. I can’t run four blocks or fold a sweater. I make out like an imbecile, I fool around foolishly, I lost my virginity and couldn’t even do that right, agreeing to it and getting sad and annoying afterward, clinging to a boy everyone knows is a jerk bastard asshole prick, loving him like I’m fucking twelve and learning the whole of life from a smiley magazine. I love like a fool, like a Z-grade off-brand romantic comedy, a loon in too much makeup saying things in an awkward script to a handsome man with his own canceled comedy show. 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. I’m all of them, every last ugly thing in a bad last-minute costume. I’m not different, not at all, not different from any other speck of a thing. I’m a blemished blemish, a ruined ruin, a stained wreck so failed I can’t see what I used to be. I’m nothing, not a single thing. The only particle I had, the only tiny thing raising me up, is that I was Ed Slaterton’s girlfriend, loved by your for like ten secs, and who cares, so what, and not anymore so how embarrassing for me…. (pp. 335-37)

What makes the relationship more tragic is that Ed isn’t a complete ass. Despite being written entirely from the distraught Min’s point of view, you can see that there are qualities in Ed that she brought out that may have saved it or could at least have made the inevitable split less painful. He seriously tries to enter Min’s world and does appear to feel an exhilarating freedom when he breaks his clique’s conventions when he’s with her. But, unfortunately, he’s a 17-year-old boy (an alpha male among the jocks and popular students) and he doesn’t have the emotional maturity to handle the situation. He panics and winds up doing the worst thing you could possibly do, hurting Min at her most vulnerable point.

This book probably isn’t for everyone. As other reviewers have pointed out, the writing is discursive and stream-of-conscious and Min can come across as superficial and annoying but I enjoyed it (as I do all of Handler’s work), perhaps because I could sympathize with Min. My greatest self-identification, though, came with the character of Al, Min’s boy friend (note the space) who affects indifference but is hopelessly in love with her. (Ah…I do not miss my high school days :-)

Final thoughts: I found it interesting but odd that all – all – of the film references Min makes are to imaginary movies and actors, even though many of these films should exist (especially “Greta in the Wild”).

Maira Kalman’s illustrations are a visual lagniappe to the story but I didn’t find them essential. But I’m not a visual person, which is why I’m a book geek and not a film geek.