With Why We Broke Up, Daniel Handler ties a relationship to the objects that have been meaningful to (at least) one of the parties involved. Maira Kalman animates those objects in her artwork so that they almost seem to take on the emotional life of the two people involved in this ill-fated romance. When Daniel Handler discussed the seeds for this project (with a gathering of teachers, librarians and reviewers), he said it began with Maira Kalman.
Handler and Kalman had collaborated on a picture book, 13 Words, and Handler asked Kalman what she’d like to work on next. She showed him paintings of ordinary objects that she’d done. If you look at her picture-book biography, Looking at Lincoln, that’s what she does there, too. She enters President Lincoln’s story through the stovepipe hat she spies in the park, the $5 bill on the table at the diner, then delves more deeply into the details of his life. Handler said that he tried to think of what makes ordinary objects seem a bit magical, and felt that “endowing them with significance because of a romance” would do it.
Min and Ed form a pie-in-the-sky connection—two people from opposite ends of the high school popularity scale who meet because the co-captain of the basketball team is hiding out after his team’s loss at a party hosted by the “arty” crowd. (Ed never uses that term to describe Min, she does; he simply calls her “different.”) But the tangible objects that give their connection meaning keep their interactions credible. The couple operates most smoothly outside the daily rhythms of high school life. When they try to pull each other into their individual orbits, trouble brews.
Ultimately, Min cannot change Ed. She brings out his best but she cannot keep his best. He would have to wish to change, and he either cannot or will not (we know not, because we only see Min’s side). Through Min’s eyes, we see that Ed tries, and perhaps even wants to sustain it, but he does not. And that is why they broke up.
With her “Dear John” letter, the basis of the entire text of the novel, Min describes the objects in the box that she is returning to Ed and replays the key moments of their relationship. Her letter and her returning of the objects allow Min to begin the process of letting go. She expects nothing back in return. She allows herself to reflect on the meaning Ed had for her, and the best parts of him that she brought to light, and why she couldn’t see then what she sees now. She’s very human and very healthy about it. By doing this physical and emotional housecleaning, she will be able to move on. Don’t we all wish we’d had a Min to guide us through high school?