Wednesday, as I was waiting for a student to arrive at the public library for a session, I took a look around for some new reading material. The librarians helpfully put the new YA novels on book-stands atop the shelves, and it was there that I first spotted this beauty:
Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler, Illustrated by Maira Kalman
The bold red cover caught my eye, with its painting of a falling teacup (A painting, not a stock photo of a pillow-lipped teen princess!), and the title sealed the deal. When I picked it up the book was solid and heavy, the pages thick and slick to serve the delightful illustrations sprinkled throughout the text. Though I didn’t discover it until after I finished the novel last night (I already knew this book was coming home with me), the blurbs on the back are all well-known authors commenting on their own experience with heartbreak. A sampling: Neil Gaiman, M.T. Andersen, Sara Shepard. Inspired.
This book is a jam.
Min Green is writing a letter to her ex, en route to deliver a box filled with the precious garbage of their relationship. Her letter starts at the beginning, with the very first memento, and wends its way through the weird and wonderful collection to build a whole picture of the bud, blossom, and wilt of her relationship with Ed Slaterton. The couple are an unlikely high school pair: Ed is the well-known Lothario co-captain of the basketball team and Min is a coffee-swilling film-obsessed gal with limited romantic experience. Min’s anger vibrates off the initial pages, blaming herself more than anyone for embarking on the doomed voyage, but soon gives way to bittersweet melancholy. The reader has the benefit of Min’s hindsight, but she is so well-written that it’s possible to see how she could have fallen for a boy who uses “fag” as an adjective.
Their courtship is sweet and frustrating and alarming, like most high school romances, compounded by their bird-loves-a-fish social situation. Every character in this novel is painfully three-dimensional, relatable even when being awful or stupid. The illustrations add a lot to the emotion of the narrative, adding a visual reference for each chapter of Min’s final missive to Ed while functioning as a pacing device. Small trinkets fill a single page while more significant ones draw out the suspense over two or three. Is there a girl on the planet who hasn’t amassed a box of silly treasures in the the throes of new love? Min may be more of a hoarder than most, but you will absolutely feel her pain looking at the ticket stubs, sweet notes, and more esoteric items that mark the milestones of her first love as she explains why it imploded.
I don’t want to spoil anything at all, this novel is very much about the journey since the reader knows at the outset that the breakup is imminent. Handler is also known as Lemony Snicket, and the wicked wit of those books is in great supply here. The book sails along on a tide of dialogue intercut with Min’s reflections, and her hindsight-musings on how those fit into the bigger picture now that she can see it. The narrative is not glib. Min is funny and acid and a mess, and refreshingly honest with herself, even as she is suffering the pain and humiliation of the breakup. Frankly, I am amazed that this book was written by a man, because it is so dead-on. It is the female answer to Rats Saw God.
Buy it, borrow it, read it, love it.
To answer in the comments: What is the weirdest memento you’ve kept in the name of love? The most significant? Mine would be an empty plastic Easter egg and a quarter, respectively.