Book Review: Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler & Maira Kalman

Book Review: Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler; illustrated by Maira Kalman

Min Green and Ed Slaterton were young and in love… and then they broke up. Why We Broke Up, written by Daniel Handler and gorgeously illustrated by Maira Kalman, is Min’s letter to Ed, hastily and tearily written by Min on her way to dump on Ed’s doorstep all of the accumulated mementos from their brief but intense relationship.

The writing is supercharged with teen-aged emotion and humor. Min is part of the “arty” crowd, an avid film buff who relates everything in life to old movies. When she falls unexpectedly for golden boy Ed, co-captain of the basketball team and center of all that’s popular in their high school, you’d think it was the Montagues and Capulets all over again. Neither Min’s nor Ed’s friends approve, but these two are in orbit around each other.

The point of view is quite interesting. We’re meant to sympathize with Min, yet I can’t help but feel that her perspective is not always reliable. Ed points out to Min repeatedly that he likes her because she’s different — meaning different from him and his friends — but Min never seems to work her way around to being able to reciprocate. Instead, it’s Ed’s popularity and the seeming ease with which he breezes through life which Min consistently adds to the list of reasons of why they broke up. She seems to try to mold Ed into her idea of an acceptable boyfriend, but can’t bring herself to enjoy any of the pursuits that make Ed who he is. Min fails to do more than acknowledge in passing that Ed is largely being cared for by his older sister while his mother is ill — yet as readers, we can infer that his mother is terminal, and thus Ed’s actions may be understandable in a different light, one which Min ignores completely.

Still, these two sparkle together, and their love and lust take them to some touching and surprising places before they’re through with one another. Min speaks with the voice of a girl experiencing first love, and her heartbreak when it falls apart is piercingly true. Min’s internal collapse when she realizes that it’s all over is particularly well-written — a three-page venting that anyone who’s been a teen-aged girl can relate to, in which she lists all the ways in which she’s not special, not different, not anyone of note. It’s dismaying, yet so true a first reaction to rejection that I had to stop and marvel that a male author could capture a girl’s inner voice so accurately.

The writing sparkles, the pictures are lovely, and the story is just a delight. Don’t let the young adult classification fool you — this is good literature, enjoyable for anyone who appreciates witty characters, heartfelt emotions, and a story well-told. Don’t miss it.

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