Book Review: The Break-Up Artist by Philip Siegel
Some sixteen-year-olds babysit for extra cash. Some work at the Gap. Becca Williamson breaks up couples.
After watching her sister get left at the altar, Becca knows the true damage that comes when people utter the dreaded L-word. For just $100 via paypal, she can trick and manipulate any couple into smithereens. With relationship zombies overrunning her school, and treating single girls like second class citizens, business is unfortunately booming. Even her best friend Val has resorted to outright lies to snag a boyfriend.
One night, she receives a mysterious offer to break up the homecoming king and queen, the one zombie couple to rule them all: Steve and Huxley. They are a JFK and Jackie O in training, masters of sweeping faux-mantic gestures, but if Becca can split them up, then school will be safe again for singletons. To succeed, she’ll have to plan her most elaborate scheme to date and wiggle her way back into her former BFF Huxley’s life – not to mention start a few rumors, sabotage some cell phones, break into a car, and fend off the inappropriate feelings she’s having about Val’s new boyfriend. All while avoiding a past victim out to expose her true identity.
No one said being the Break-Up Artist was easy.
This YA novel is refreshingly straight-forward: Becca is a girl on a mission. In a school where (paraphrasing here) “you wouldn’t understand, you’ve never had a boyfriend” is the ultimate put-down, it’s no wonder that girls like Becca suffer mightily. Seemingly unbreakable best-friendships are tossed aside the second one friend gets a boyfriend. It doesn’t seem to matter who he is, so long as there’s someone to walk down the hallway with and make googly eyes at. Wouldn’t it absolutely drive you bonkers if every conversation you were subjected to began with “My boyfriend says…” or “Last night, my boyfriend and I…”?
Becca is especially bitter when it comes to so-called true love. Heck, she even claims that Romeo and Juliet were never truly in love — just a couple of hormonal teens who probably would have gotten tired of each other if they’d spent more than a week together. She’s seen her closest friend from middle school, Huxley, transform herself from a really great friend to the queen of the school, with no time to spare for her former (lesser) friends now that she’s dating a supremely popular boy and has reached the pinnacle of the school social heap. Becca has also seen the suffering her sister has endured ever since getting dumped on her wedding day. What’s more, she looks at her parents and sees two people who just live in the same house with not a shred of romance between them. So what’s so great about relationships?
To top it all off, her best friend Val, after years of wanting a boyfriend, finally has one… even though she had to pretend to share his love of movies in order to get him to notice her. Now they make out in hallways and only have eyes for each other, except for when they take pity on Becca, invite her to come out with them, and then get so caught up in each other that they ignore her completely. Val is ecstatic, Becca is dubious… and Becca is conflicted, because Val’s boyfriend seems to have more in common with Becca, and he has the dreamiest eyes! Ugh, Becca, run away! No boy is worth the pain that will fall down on your head if you — wait! Don’t kiss him! Argh. Bad moves galore.
Here’s the thing: Becca’s judgment is, shall we say, not so sound? She starts her business as the Break-Up Artist to make a little money, yes, but more so out of a sense of righteous indignation over the fate of the singletons in her school. Operating via email and video chat (in disguise), Becca’s clients are her schoolmates, often the friends left behind for the sake of a relationship with a cute boy. It’s a sad state of affairs, and in Becca’s view, almost none of these relationships are real. The truth she continually discovers is that girls stick with jerky boyfriends because even a jerky boyfriend is better than no boyfriend. It’s truly a disheartening state of affairs.
So Becca meddles, not that ingeniously, in my humble opinion, and when it hits the fan — as it was bound to — Becca faces the loss of every friend at school and complete and utter humiliation. So was it worth it? Well, yes and no. Becca does suffer social disaster, but comes to realize some hard truths as well: Not every relationship, no matter how corny or over the top, is doomed to fail. Some teen couples may actually love each other. Some people really can figure things out on their own, without being pried apart by the Break-Up Artist. And maybe what looks like a lack of romance on the part of her parents is really just Becca’s introduction to what a normal, health, mature relationship might look like, once the initial thrill and hormonal rush give way to true affection and devotion.
So, my big picture thoughts about The Break-Up Artist?
On the plus side, the writing is full of quips and zingers that kept me amused and engaged. Here are a few top choices:
I reread the email about five more times. The words don’t change, but each time they seep in more. I deal with low profile relationships, ones that don’t case major seismic shifts in the tectonic plates of gossip our school rests upon. Huxley and Steve are the San Andreas Fault of relationships. (Wow, I guess our current unit on geology is more fascinating than I thought.)
Everything Ezra says needs cheesy background music and sparkles. I wonder if his mom read him greeting cards as a baby.
It’s weird when you find out your suspicions are correct. I knew from a young age that the tooth fairy wasn’t real. But I still felt a pang of disappointment when my dad woke me up cramming a dollar under my pillow. It’s not always fun being right.
On the down side, there were quite a few elements that made shake my head or take a step back. Becca’s voice didn’t feel especially authentic — she seemed more to me like a writer’s idea of how a teen girl might think, as opposed to a real girl, if that makes sense. Some of the word and phrasing choices struck me as odd, like the term “singleton” or even referring to herself and friends as being “single”. Maybe they don’t have boyfriends, but I’m not convinced that they’d define themselves using those words.
The emphasis on having a boyfriend at all costs is overdone. The message here is that this is NOT a good way to live life… but it’s a pretty muddled message, based on Becca’s actions and her interactions with Huxley and Val. It’s not a bad thing to have a boyfriend, so maybe the book might have been more convincing if we saw even one couple in the high school following some sort of middle path, rather than becoming instant, extreme relationship zombies.
The author is careful to keep Becca balanced just on the right side of the line dividing a good person making unwise choices from a bad person doing bad things. Becca does act unwisely, perhaps for what she considers good reasons, but people do get hurt, and she makes foolish choices galore. Yes, her worldview has been skewed by her experiences with her former friends and by sister’s ordeal, but that’s not really a valid excuse for what she does. And, let me just add, Becca’s schemes are a bit lame. She breaks up a couple by planting a fake wedding binder in the boy’s locker so he’ll freak out over his girlfriend’s supposed wedding obsession — but who would believe this, really? All of the break-up moves Becca pulls off seem like plans that could only work in fiction or in the movies. Real people just wouldn’t be fooled.
Bottom line? The Break-Up Artist is a fun, fast read, but with some tonal flaws, a main character who can be hard to get behind, and some plot points that strain plausibility way beyond the breaking point. The quippiness is fun and I enjoyed a lot about the writing, but the plot itself could have used some big tweaks in order to resemble anything like real high school life.
Title: The Break-Up Artist
Author: Philip Siegel
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Publication date: April 29, 2014
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Harlequin Teen via NetGalley