Who among us hasn’t, at least once, taken leave of our senses and fallen in love with a wholly unsuitable, entirely wrong-for-us person?
Why We Broke Up, the first young adult novel by Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket, author of the Series of Unfortunate Events books), is a deceptively simple story about a pair of ill-suited lovers who meet cute, fall hard, and end badly. Min is an aspiring filmmaker. Ed is a popular basketball star. When they meet at a “Bitter 16 Party,” it kicks off a 38-day whirlwind romance that ends with Min about to deposit a letter and a cardboard box on Ed’s front porch.
The book is Min’s letter, the box, and its contents, relics of Min and Ed’s brief, but intense relationship: things like a comb, a pair of earrings, a movie ticket, a pennant, bottle caps, a toy truck, an egg cuber.
Object by object, Min rehashes the highs and lows of their relationship, and explains in heart-rending detail why she and Ed broke up. It’s an ideal vantage point for the book, and a great conceit upon which to hang it. The breakup wounds are still fresh, but Min has had enough time to realize some hard truths about her relationship with Ed. She’s angry, she’s sad, she’s over Ed, and yet, she still remembers exactly what it felt like to be in love with him.
Handler does a fine job of creating a relatable character who’s both vulnerable and self-aware. And on top of that, Min’s just delightful. She’s funny, sharp, and has impeccable taste - her pop culture favorites include a canon of classic films and jazz combos, none of which exist outside of Daniel Handler’s imagination.
Also impeccable are the book’s illustrations by Maira Kalman, one for each object Min dumps on Ed’s porch. Kalman’s paintings convey the whimsy and magic of ordinary things accorded extraordinary significance, and are a beautiful compliment to the story.
The story is an old one, but Why We Broke Up is no garden variety teen romance. One of the reasons the book seems so fresh is that Handler understands the ways that every broken heart is the same, and every broken heart is painfully, specifically, subatomically unique. If you’ve ever suffered one yourself (especially if it happened in high school), you’re sure to find something you recognize here.