Cover image for Things to make and break
Things to make and break
Personal Author:
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
Minneapolis : Coffee House Press, 2018.
Physical Description:
204 pages ; 21 cm
General Note:
"An Emily Books original."

"First published in the United Kingdom by CB Editions in 2014" -- ECIP galley.
Legendary -- Date night -- 101 -- Julia K. -- DD-MM-YY -- Laurens -- Candy glass -- Ghosts -- New Jersey -- Transformer -- Would like to meet.
"In these eleven stories, Tan explores the idea that every relationship between two people is actually a relationship between three people: each relationship encompasses and relies upon an interstitial presence--another person, a former self, a future lover. Within this loose thematic constraint, a series of related worlds unspool. Teenagers in a band betray each other. A woman gets so obsessed with photos of her boyfriend's ex that she eventually contrives a way to meet her. A woman has a relationship with her sister's husband's brother that darkly, secretly parallels her sister's happy marriage. Each character is a mirror, double or proxy of someone else, hinting at the possibility that we seek out the same person in different bodies and churn through cycles of self-invention/-annihilation." -- Provided by publisher.


Material Type
Call Number
Book Fiction Tan
Book Fiction Tan
Book Fiction Tan

On Order



These eleven short fictions evoke the microcosmic worlds every human relationship contains. A woman is captivated by the stories her boyfriend tells about his exes. A faltering artist goes on a date with a married couple. Twin brothers work out their rivalry via the girl next door. In every one of these tales, we meet indelibly real and unforgettable people, a cast of rebels and dreamers trying to transform themselves, forge new destinies, or simply make the moment last.

Author Notes

May-Lan Tan studied fine art at Goldsmiths and works as a ghostwriter. Her stories have appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story , the Atlas Review , the Reader , and Areté . She lives in Berlin.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

With this provocative debut, Tan proves herself a sharp chronicler of contemporary romance. Her stories feature setups including a love triangle consisting of twin brothers and a woman with brain damage ("DD-MM-YY") and a movie star's tryst with her transgender stunt double ("Candy Glass"). In the brief, impressionistic "Ghosts," an unfaithful husband suppresses his kinks to save his marriage. "Would Like to Meet" finds Amber, a museum curator with bone cancer, attempting to find a woman for her husband to remarry after she dies. The narrator, having answered the couple's ad, is immediately receptive ("They were trying to pull the future into the present, to make a place for Amber in it. I thought it was a beautiful idea") even as the husband has second thoughts. These stories are attention-grabbing, though sometimes hamstrung by Tan's inclination to default to stock imagery to evoke her characters' passion for each other ("I drifted in your wake, feeling the tug of your slipstream. I watched your cigarette hand in the wind, smoke threading your fingers"). The collection's best moments are its small ones, when Tan focuses on the maintenance of a relationship rather than its alluring arrival. Tan has a powerful ability to push the characters' relationships to their emotional limits, and she is never better than when those limits break. (Oct.) c Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Booklist Review

Tan unveils worlds within worlds in this collection of 10 stories, depicting love relationships and their inevitable complications. Adam has an opportunity to hook up with his twin brother's ex-girlfriend, Coney, after an incident that made her lose her memories. Julia tells a potential lover her incredibly bizarre story of being temporarily crucified by a cult. A couple seeks counseling to repair their marriage and manage one party's masochistic sexual desires. One woman becomes fixated on finding her boyfriend's sensual ex-girlfriend and imitating the woman's attributes; another sleeps with her sister's husband's brother, even though she can't fathom being in a committed relationship with him. Vivien meets a couple interested in dating her for reasons deeper than they initially indicate. Tan, author of the chapbook Girly (2014), shows how love stories rarely involve just two people, as her characters all search for connection and explore possibilities despite the consequences. She writes these compelling narratives with a cinematic quality that will keep readers engaged.--Emily Park Copyright 2018 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

In the final story in Tan's brilliant and daring collection, Vivien Chiang, a reluctant shop clerk, is robbed by a thief pressing a blade against her skull. "I didn't think he wanted to kill me," she says, "but to destroy me in some other way." After he takes what he wants, she refills the register from her own savings and goes home to bandage her wound. Destruction and how to heal it run through these 11 stories. That the thief is a stranger makes him an outlier here; most of Tan's characters are hurt by those closest to them, often intentionally. But these characters have also abandoned any expectation that others will be good. In "Ghosts," a woman's partner - hoping she will improve her ways - pointedly asks if people really can change. "No," she replies, "they don't change. They just keep their promises." Never blindsided when confronted with selfishness or cruelty, Tan's characters are free of disappointment but not of suffering itself, which the stories suggest cannot be avoided. After Vivien has dealt with her physical wound, she scans the personals: one of many instances in which these characters seek connection after pain. Often contact is physical, sexual, but intellectual, too, though curiosity here walks the line of obsession and wreaks its own havoc. In "Date Night" a girl asks her live-in nanny endless questions about the family she's separated from, unaware of the pain she might be inflicting. The narrator of "Julia K." gets more than he asked for from his neighbor Julia, as she's just been released from an unusual nondisclosure agreement and has quite a story to tell. Regret is rarely felt by these characters, who possess a preternatural ability to accept if not forgive, who keep seeking the other side of hurt. In one of the collection's strongest stories, "DD-MM-YY," a character is irrevocably physically and mentally diminished by a car accident, but in a characteristic moment we realize she has gained something too: "She came back with a long, puffy scar bisecting her forehead, and something fierce and glittery that hadn't been there before."

Library Journal Review

Debut A Berlin-based author with a background in fine arts, Tan looks at relationships with a satisfying honesty, neither too sentimental nor too darkly cynical; characters move their way through life and make their peace with it. The writing is mostly bright, loose-limbed, and engaging even though the subjects aren't always sparkly. A mother's date night out brings forth a daughter's wistfulness, a boy whose mother committed suicide believes he hears her voice when he and his father have a car accident, two sisters each get pregnant, but only one has the baby. In the emblematic opening story, a young woman becomes obsessed with her caddish boyfriend's former girlfriend, Holly-the only one in a long string of flings whose name he mentions-and secretly seeks her out. When she moves out after their breakup, she realizes, "I'm one of them now, a blade in the guts of some future girl." There's something vulnerable yet finally tough about this character, as there is about the protagonist of "Candy Glass," who's starring in a romcom-thriller that "arrive[s] in Miami a month behind schedule and four million over budget" and becomes fascinated by her stunt double. VERDICT Entertaining reading from a writer worth watching. © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.