“Why We Broke Up” A Novel by Daniel Handler with Art by Maira Kalman

“It’s not you— it’s me.”  “I think we should see other people”.  “I think I just need to be alone right now.” “You’re great- but …” No one makes it through life without exposure to the miserable condition known as THE BREAK-UP.  Everyone has at least one real stinger. Or two. Or three.  Whether it’s the guy who stopped answering your notes in study hall, the girl you caught kissing some other boy under the bleachers, or that ONE who said he’s been  in love with his best friend the whole time- (you know who you are DRUMMER BOY!) Everyone’s got a high school/college break-up story. You know- that if as an adult you bumped into them- you’d just love to say- (insert explicit language here).

Ok, ok, I have recently gone through a break-up.  So if I’m a bit moody and prone to the stink-eye lately, I apologize- blame the male species.  After days of listening to Hank Williams on an endless loop, watching sad French film full of unrequited love, and eating my weight in girl scout cookies- (I freeze a mass quantity for the bad times)- I decided to attempt to fill my time with more self-fulfilling endeavors.  You know- Bridget Jones it.  Ally McBeal it- theme song anyone?  Because he just made the biggest mistake of his life!  I am woman!  Hear me roar!  Oh and I’ve got this little business of a bookshop to run. Step one: Rearrange the apartment.  Step two: Create!  Take up new hobbies: Knitting! Cooking! French!  Step three:  Put down “The Paris Wife” (way too close to home) and pick up something light, cheeky, but with heart.

I usually don’t delve into the young adult genre, but the title “Why We Broke Up” and the cover illustration sucked me right in- you know- in my vulnerable state and all. Because no matter how old I get, I always feel a bit like a teenager going through this broken heart business. 

Written by Evan Handler, of “Lemony Snicket” fame, and illustrated by Maira Kalman, WhyWe Broke Up tells the story of the month long romance of high school junior Min Green and high school senior Ed Slaterton.  The meet/fall-in-love/breakup tale is told as a very long letter written by Min, in an Italian coffee shop, explaining a collection of high school artifacts from their romance that she has tossed in a box and is about to dump on his porch. Before each chapter is one of Kalman’s illustrations of one object going into the box which vividly comes to life and has an emotional vernacular all on its own.   The first object: a couple of bitter-ale bottle caps from her friend Al’s Bitter Sixteen party where she and her arty group are enjoying bitter music, bitter food and, yes, bitter beer when Ed, a basketball star, and a few of his pals show up. “It was flushed, every room, too hot and too loud, and I ran up the stairs, knocked in case people were in Al’s bed already, picked up the cardigan, and then slipped outside for air and in case you were in the yard,” Min recalls breathlessly. “And you were, you were.” The sparks between Min and Ed are immediate, and so it begins.

Min is the outspoken outsider, romantic-movie star buff with frizzy hair and Ed is the basketball jock with a penchant for bonfires and light beer.  The relationship only lasts a few weeks but Handler beautifully renders the richness and fullness of a young romance.  He takes us beneath the surface of these two multi-layered characters as it sparks and burns. Both characters come from different social groups and their friends are both baffled and irritated by the coupling.  But Min and Ed genuinely care for one another and as you come to know them, each one transcends the cliché high school label.  Min can’t go too long without citing a film reference and Ed carries a protractor around in his pocket for emergency maps and sketches.  The exquisite scenes of high school life and the moody reflections of a teenage mind hit all the minor key notes of our first and last dates. 

Even though the reader knows how it’s going to end, it is well worth the journey.  The novel is marketed in the Young Adult genre, but only as an adult can we truly appreciate it- like watching an old John Hughes movie on a Saturday morning.  With Handler’s sophisticated prose and Kalman’s affecting illustrations, it puts me right back into my 1988 Volvo listening to Alanis Morrissette on cassette wondering why I was so brokenhearted and when and how I was ever going to face the world again.  I like to think it changes- but the hurt still feels the same.  Instead of a cassette- its itunes filled with “best break-up songs” mixes. Instead of a box with some tokens- its expensive luggage filled with half an apartment full of belongings.  Yes, you might still bump into them at your favorite Asian grocery shop instead of the school hallways- but the difference now is you’ve learned to become a better actors.   Right?



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