Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler, Art by Maira Kalman
Why We Broke Up is written in the form of a letter from a teenage girl to her ex-boyfriend, delivered to him with a box of things that she’s returning to him to give her closure for the end of the relationship. The book is illustrated with pictures of the things in the box, each of which marks an event in the relationship. The author also wrote the Lemony Snicket books, which shows he’s really a master of voice, since he’s pitch-perfect with two completely opposite characters and tones. The language and voice of this character was one of my favorite parts of the book, reminding me of verbose, witty high school friends and the deep conversations and relationships I had at that age.
Min is a member of an offbeat “arty” group in her high school, a cinema geek who is always referring to obscure films. Ed is co-captain of the basketball team, and in their small town that’s a big deal. Min opens Ed up to all kinds of new experiences, and this change and growth, along with revelations of sweetness and innocence, make Min fall for him too. They’re an unconventional couple, and both their friends fail to understand their attraction, which causes most of the book’s drama. One of the book’s weak points is a reliance on stereotypes about jock types and drama types as complete opposites in high school society.
The book is unusual among YA lit because it portrays teen sex, and not really in a “cautionary tale” way. I think it’s realistic to show teens having sex that is full of humor, chemistry, fun, and a bit of awkwardness, and to show that it doesn’t always mean the end of the world in the form of STDs and pregnancy. Rather, the book shows how sex raises the stakes in a relationship, and can potentially lead to heartbreak, or worsen a heartbreak that was always inevitable. That’s much more thoughtful and useful to teens than the doom-and-gloom messages that teens usually get from sex ed and parents.
I was a little disappointed when I found out why the couple broke up, the mystery of the book, because it seemed to discredit everything they had shared, and make it less meaningful. It made it more painful for both of them, for sure, but less complex for the reader, the breakup less of a difficult decision. I felt sorry for both Min and Ed, Min because she’d wasted such love on a jerk, and Ed, because the letter really shows what he lost. Min is the wronged party and the one who triumphs, who seems more likely to find deep lasting happiness, while the letter seems to doom Ed to well-deserved endless self-recrimination, or rationalization and repression of all complex yearnings. It was sad to see a character squander such potential for the sake of remaining comfortable and feeding his ego. Even more sad is that I believed it, that it made sense.