Even Stevens’s #CBR5 review #16: Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

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Quick note: I’m publishing my reviews slighty out of order because the last book I finished was A Storm of Swords, and I am just not even ready to write that one up yet. This was my post-SoS palate cleanser.

Min Green, a slightly nerdy junior who is obsessed with classic movies and sees her life in film, is breaking up with Ed Slaterton, co-captain of the basketball team, and one of the most popular seniors at her school. Min drops a box of mementos from their relationship on Ed’s doorstep, and with each memento an accompanying note reminisces about how that one thing became significant to her, and how after The Big Thing (because there is a Big Thing), she can’t stand to look at any of these mementos that reminds her of their time together.

Each chapter represents one memento in the box, some are long and significant, while others take only a page or two, but still speak volumes. I love the illustrations (by Maira Kalman) as well; they add a personal, and at times bittersweet, note to the book. Min is a great narrator, and I found that I identified pretty strongly with her. A movie-obsessed, snarky teenager who is slightly on the social fringes and has a bit of a potty mouth and is also a little naïve about the dating game? Yep, it took me back a few years. I like how Handler sets up Min and Ed’s meeting and eventual dating. It could be very tempting to make Min a fawning teenage girl who can’t believe such a popular boy would fall for her (aka what seems to happen in any rom com ever), and there is a bit of that, but Min has a strong personality all her own, and she experiences many things: happiness, giddiness, self-doubt, shyness, insecurity, anger, love, and she does so with a dry wit that I loved.

As the book unfolds, the reader really gets to know Min and Ed and even though we know from the title exactly what happens, I was still rooting for them because though they were very different from each other, Ed and Min complemented each other and were quite frankly damn cute together.  However, as the chapters progress, we get little hints of things not quite being right, little niggling thoughts and worries that start little red warning signals in the back of our brains. I figured out what The Big Thing was that split them up about halfway through the book, but it didn’t detract at all from the story. Actually, as I think about it, I think it was clever on Handler’s part, because we most likely figure out the truth of things before Min; I think this only adds to the awfulness that comes when Min catches up to the rest of us, and realizes not only what The Big Thing is, but also that she is the last to realize it, adding insult to injury. Further, looking back on some of the events of the book, what seemed cute and sweet take on a bitter tone, wreaking of selfishness and cruelty and I felt for Min all over again.

There’s a part near the end where Min examines how everyone claimed that she was “different” from the other girls Ed has dated and how she doesn’t feel different at all, but rather ordinary and unremarkable. Even though she holds no culpability for how things turn out, and even though she lashes out at who and what caused The Big Thing, she also turns it inward and blames herself.  It sounds like a plot point in any other book, but damn if Handler doesn’t break my heart a little right along with Min (I’m going to include part of the quote at the end for those who are curious, those who want to find out for themselves feel free to skip it, although it is spoiler-free).  I loved how human Handler made this book; Min feels like she could be any one of my friends or even me myself at some point, and it’s a testament to his writing that I’m still angry at certain characters and actions, as if they were real people. This was a quick read but a very engrossing one and I strongly recommend it.

Side note – I was not aware of this, and only found out after finishing the book, but Daniel Handler also writes children’s books under another name – Lemony Snicket.

Part of the quote from Min (it spans several pages, so this is but an excerpt):

“I love like a fool, like a Z-grade off-brand romantic comedy, a loon in too much makeup saying things in an awkward script to a handsome man with his own cancelled comedy show. I’m not a romantic, I’m a half-wit. Only stupid people would think I’m smart. I’m not something anyone should know. I’m a lunatic wandering around for scraps, I’m like every single miserable moron I’ve scorned and pretended I didn’t recognize. I’m all of them, ever last ugly thing in a bad last-minute costume. I’m not different, not at all, not different from any other speck of a thing. I’m a blemished blemish, a ruined ruin, a stained wreck so failed I can’t see what I used to be. I’m nothing, not a single thing. The only particle I had, the only tiny thing raising me up, is that I was Ed Slaterton’s girlfriend, loved by you for like ten secs, and who cares, so what, and not anymore so how embarrassing for me. How wrong I was to think I was anyone else…”

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