Although I consider young adult fiction to be a guilty pleasure of mine, sometimes I don’t feel quite so guilty about it. Despite the fact that Daniel Handler’s YA novel Why We Broke Up feels even more juvenile than most picks from the young adult genre because it is a picture book (artist Maira Kalman’s work is included at the beginning of each chapter), the art is actually a quirky and creative means to tell the story of why protagonist Min (short for Minerva) broke up with Ed Slaterton. I certainly anticipated feelings of guilt before I started reading this one, but once I picked it up those feelings evaporated rather quickly. This was an incredibly enjoyable read and one I wouldn’t feel an ounce of shame to recommend to me friends (which is why I’m writing this review, I guess).
So the plot: en route to her now-ex’s house, Min composes a letter detailing the reasons why she and Ed broke up as she goes through a box of all her Ed-paraphernalia. Each item within the box (illustrated in the book by Kalman) is afforded its own chapter in which Minerva elaborates upon the circumstances surrounding the physical object that reminds her of Ed and how it made her fall for Ed or foretold their coming break up. In so doing Minerva shares with readers the story of how she came to fall for Ed in the first place. It’s a deceptively sweet young love story told within the confines of an unapologetic break up novel, the classic tale of two young people from different worlds falling in ill-fated love.
Minerva, an unabashed cinema nerd, continually cringes as Ed’s friends try to describe her – she always dreads being labeled “arty” but what she is more commonly classified as, “different,” isn’t much better given its vagueness and potential for profoundly negative connotations. Ed is co-caption of the basketball team, a charismatic high school senior that seems to have dated pretty much every girl in school with even the slightest ounce of popularity to her name. Min and Ed meet one another at a party, a chance encounter for two high schoolers from completely different social circles – after a disappointing basketball loss, Ed and company crash one of Min’s friend’s parties. Minerva’s friends are a delightful bunch, fiercely loyal to both one another and their respective ideas of themselves as independent and authentic. They spend time at coffee shops and see black and white movies at the art house movie theater, they explore the most interesting haunts of their neighborhood and have ironic Bitter Sixteen birthday parties. They aren’t the most developed teenage characters in the world of fiction, but they are appealing in their earnest attempts at being themselves and their ability to plainly recognize the superfluousness of popularity, athleticism, and high school drama. Ed’s friends fall on the other extreme, a group of far more one-dimensional characters who spend their time at bonfires dominated by gossip, kegs, and an endless game of musical girlfriends among the basketball players.
But then Min catches Ed’s eye and introduces him to her world. There is something rather endearing about the trope of the artistic love interest opening up new doors for the more conventional one and Handler carries it out rather sweetly.
Of course, conflict arises. Ed was conditioned to behave towards women in a certain way that is far from conducive to Min’s expectations of coupledom. Min tries to ignore Ed’s complete lack of taste, not to mention his lack of genuine interest in her friends. Their circles are so far removed that social events require careful and elaborate planning so as to evenly split time with both groups. Ed’s ex-girlfriends are constantly around, constantly contributing to Min’s sense of self doubt. Min learns her lesson that you can’t choose a boy over your true friends.
Handler also gives readers a fair share of what we always seek in romance novels, whether written about the young or the old – a glimpse into the remarkable and unrepeatable world two people create together. Even though we know all along, thanks to the author’s wise choice of title, that this relationship will end with a split, that doesn’t negate the moments of tenderness, humor, and adventure that Min and Ed share. On their first date, Min takes Ed to see a movie and, upon leaving the theater, surmises that an elderly lady also exiting the theater is in fact the aging star of the film they just watched. The ensuing narrative of Min and Ed following the supposed actress around town and to her home highlights the way that Min brings out a certain side of Ed many don’t see, not even Ed himself. It’s a side that is game for adventure, that seeks something in life other than the unquestioned norm, but he painfully needs some guidance in how to access that part of himself to begin with. Each item in Min’s box is a testament to this world that no longer exists by novel’s end, the small touchstones that indicate the type of people Min and Ed were in the short time they spent together.
Handler expertly characterizes a modern day Romeo and Juliet, a pair that obviously don’t belong together but are still drawn to one another in ways that are at once plainly clear and deeply complicated. Why We Broke Up is easy to mock (I’ve seen my fair share of negative reviews whose titles are hackneyed puns along the lines of “Why I Broke Up With This Book”), but I appreciate Handler’s bold (and I would argue successful) attempt at navigating the seas of teenage love and heartbreak in a fresh way. And if it makes you feel any better, you don’t have to tell anyone that pictures accompany the story though in retrospect, I ultimately found them to be just another sweet touch.