Review: Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

TITLE: Why We Broke Up
AUTHOR: Daniel Handler
PAGES: 368
FORMAT: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0316127257
BUY IT: Amazon
RATING: 5/5 [in the genre] or 8/10 [all books I’ve ever read].
FOR: Fans of Meg Cabot and Lemony Snicket (duh). Brokenhearted people. Anyone looking for a sweetly sad story of teenage romance.

I'm telling you why we broke up, Ed. I'm writing it in this letter, the whole truth of why it happened.

Min Green and Ed Slaterton are breaking up, so Min is writing Ed a letter and giving him a box. Inside the box is why they broke up. Two bottle caps, a movie ticket, a folded note, a box of matches, a protractor, books, a toy truck, a pair of ugly earrings, a comb from a motel room, and every other item collected over the course of a giddy, intimate, heartbreaking relationship. Item after item is illustrated and accounted for, and then the box, like a girlfriend, will be dumped.

The Basics: I loved this book, loved it so much I put off finishing it so that I wouldn’t have to be sad it was over. Handler’s new novel has all the whimsy that I loved in A Series of Unfortunate Events but adds an emotional depth and authenticity that exceeds his past efforts. Min is an idealistic narrator, both loveable and frustrating. Her affair with Ed is brief and intense in only the way high school loves can be. The backdrop of fictionalized old movies illuminates Min’s character and adds to the whimsical atmosphere of the whole story. The break-up box is something many people, including myself, can relate to—a clever way to dissect a relationship moment by moment. While the actions of the characters seemed sometimes too incredible, the writing was strong and held together a very touching and relatable story.

Plot (4/5): Handler’s clever about it. He doesn’t tell us a wholly linear tale. He doesn’t give us all the details. We still don’t know exactly what happened second-to-second, what went on in the hallways at school, every afternoon hangout. We’re given vignettes that create an impression of a relationship—a deep one, one that makes Ed, Min, their love, and its disintegration very real to the reader. The only bit I can’t get is the final reveal, where one character’s actions tip the balance of the relationship. I won’t say who, only that, for someone who acted one way for most of the book, I just couldn’t fully buy the callousness they showed later on. Maybe the narrator’s flawed perspective contributed to this, but it just seemed a wee bit too convenient to me.

Concept (5/5): Kudos to Handler for taking a new kind of stab at the typical teenage love story. This isn’t a love to last the ages. This is the kind of relationship you had in high school, where you lived and died by movie theater kisses and notes shoved into lockers. Back when the Prom seemed like forever. The fact that it’s told surrounding objects is a great move. We’ve all had the break-up box, or known someone who’s done it. It’s so incompletely satisfying, shoving your whole relationship into a confined space and chucking it back like that’s going to unbreak your heart, Toni Braxton style (look it up). Showing how deep the relationship goes beyond those memories is a much more interesting structure than your typical “Girls meets boy. Lovey dovey stuff. Disaster.” linear narrative.

Characters (5/5): I adored Min. Maybe because I was (and to some degree, am) Min. She’s the perfect heroine for a reader, since so many of us are nerds trapped inside our own heads. And Min is in her head for sure. Every bit of her life reminds her of an old movie. She’s living scripts instead of living life. Something she never fully realizes, even, perhaps, at the end. And it’s this idealism that blinds her to all the little reasons Why They Broke Up. Until the scales fall. Sometimes you want to slap her and her lovey-dovey gushiness, but then you remember when you were like that. The supporting cast is also brilliantly done. Ed feels like your typical guy trying to be your typical jock, even if parts of him are less typical. Al reminds me heartwrenchingly of somebody that I used to know, Gotye style (look it up). Even the couple of minor characters, Joan, Lauren, etc., feel so real despite their very brief appearances. This is a place that could exist somewhere. Anywhere.

Style (5/5): Personally, I loved Min’s voice. She’s a smart, idealistic girl and that came out through the way she spoke in the book. Big words, phrases borrowed from old movies, colorful metaphors. Handler may be an adult male, but he writes my teenage years like he lived them. Only really now, would a basketball star who calls things “gay” also say, “Criminy?” Because, criminy! I doubt it. The constant inclusion of old movies was a touch. They were all fake, so it doesn’t matter if you didn’t recognize the references. They did what they needed to: brought out Min’s fantastical imagination and made it demonstrably clear just how “different” she is from Ed.

Mechanics (5/5): Nothing to add. The combination of pictures and text worked well and it was polished, as expected.

Take Home Message: The story you never hear: a typical teenage romance, told in a way anything but typical.

Note: I received this book on loan from Emily Rencich, who had a very different opinion of the book which you should read here.


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