A review of Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler
Published 2012, Egmont
I have very high standards for love stories. I don’t like it when the lead character is needy, whiny, or helpless. I think it’s a shame when a writer comes up with a good concept for a book or character, and it feels like he copped out to the lesser challenge by framing the concept or the character in a love story, instead of what could have been more organic. I have also come to question the absolutely necessity of it, whenever a character in a love story dies.*
So, let me get to it: I LOVE THIS BOOK.
No one dies in this simple, straightforward high school romance that features a smart and strong female protagonist. Making use of the outcast and popular kid archetypes, Why We Broke Up finds a solid foundation in the opposites-attract template and reminds us that clichés only became stale because when they work, THEY WORK.
But even beyond that, there are so many things to rave about with this book.
One, the production of it is just absolutely awesome — and for some reason, didn’t hike the price. I paid 489 pesos (around USD11) for my hardback, which used thick magazine-type matte paper. It’s beautiful! (But super heavy, it was hard to read if I needed to prop it up with an arm.)
Two: Maira Kalman! One doesn’t expect full-page illustrations in novels, but these were very welcome, cohesive to the text, and just perfect. The illustrations spoke a lot in place of the story, and contributed a lot, I think, to the restraint of the storytelling. There was so much unsaid in this story, it made absolute sense to use visuals when it did.
Oh, the things left unsaid. I really appreciate it when a writer obviously values the readers’ time that it feels as if he really thought about whether that word, or this page, or that punctuation mark is worth it. I especially like it when the absences leave us with something to use our imaginations on. Because sometimes, the thing that happened is what’s important, and reasons would just muddle everything.
So we’re never really told about the deal with Ed’s mom, or where Min’s father is, or what actually happens with Al in the end. As a reader, it makes me feel like the writer trusts that I can do what I can with what I’ve been given. I like that.
And the movies! In the book, readers will be amazed and impressed to find made-up movies described in rich, intricate detail that they all seemed real (and quite watchable, if you think about it). It reminded me a lot of Paul Auster, who includes fictional works of art in his fictional works of art.
And oh, Min Green. I can’t stop thinking about you. I want Min and I to be friends. And I’d be like Al, or maybe not like Al, but like her other friends, who wanted to tell her at the start of the story not to get involved with Ed. (Partly because I knew they would break up eventually, duh, the title. And partly because, well, who of us doesn’t know an Ed Slaterton?)
But frankly, as this story progressed, I got it. And I have to give to Min: Ed was quite a guy. He was sweet, and thoughtful, and attentive, and was his own kind of smart, and he made an effort. Which I guess is why it sucked so much when they broke up. Though I agree, Min had to break up with him. I wish we were all as aware of our self-worth when we were in high school. (And I also kind of wish we all got the opportunity to torture an ex with a book-length break up letter.)
I love this book, because the sum of it is even greater than all the wonderful little parts. It felt so personal, as all letters should, that I felt so involved in the narrative. It moved me—I was giddy, or laughing, or deeply annoyed, all the while enjoying every moment. It’s a great example of a piece of art whose form matches its content. And if it’s not obvious by now,
I highly recommend it I implore everyone to go out, buy this book, read it, talk about it among friends, and then treasure it forever.
And I just have to say, because I will never get over it: asterisk-ampersand-exclamation-point to you, Ed Slaterton.
* Actually, come to think of it, I question the absolute necessity of a love angle in any story. I think we have a lot of it (Amazon lists 8,730 choices just under YA fiction). I think that love angles in other types of stories have a tendency to provide more of a distraction rather than an added dimension to the narrative.