Young Adult Education

Young Adult Education: ‘Why We Broke Up' by Daniel Handler

Even though the title, Why We Broke Up, told me exactly what was going to happen, I still thought things might work out. That’s the heartbreaking mystery of this book by Daniel Handler—somehow, it tricks you into falling head-over-heels, even though you know the whole time you’re just going to get your heart smashed.

Written as one long letter from Min Green to Ed Slaterton, the book goes into a sometimes funny, sometimes sad play-by-play of their relationship’s demise. Along with the letter, Min gives Ed a box of mementos, the sort of things everyone accumulates in a relationship. Those bottle caps from the first meeting, that note on the napkin from the coffee shop, the ticket from the terrible movie; all the little things that are so meaningful when you’re in love, and so totally useless when you’re not.

From the beginning, we see that Min and Ed are an unlikely couple. She’s a film buff, a coffee-lover and (as everyone at school refers to her) “artsy.” He’s the co-captain of the basketball team. They have totally different friends and lives; Ed hangs out with the basketball team and whatever girl he’s dating that week. Min hangs out with her best friend Al, the kind of guy who has a “Bitter 16” party and serves a cake with chocolate so dark that it’s inedible. The book’s like a modern day Pretty In Pink, which is basically the highest compliment I could ever give.

But this isn’t just a novel; Why We Broke Up also features gorgeous, full-color illustrations by the artist Maira Kalman. Everything in the box, the posters and pictures and trash, is rendered in exquisite detail. Like a note from Ed, with its folded, creased edges and Ed’s child-like, high school boy scrawl, or a bright yellow protractor against a sky blue background. Everything looks real enough to touch, as if Min Green allowed you to rifle through the box before she dumped it at Ed’s.

This book resonates so deeply because almost everyone has, at one time or another, gone through what Min’s going through–falling in love with someone who’s so clearly wrong for you, but going all in anyway because it seems impossible that it couldn’t work out. How could something that feels so good go bad? How can something that seems forever end? And how could this feeling, the one that’s stronger than anything you’ve ever known, change? But it does change; that’s the thing. You just don’t know it yet because it’s the first time. Sometimes “love” just means today, not tomorrow, and sometimes “always” just means “for now.”

Why We Broke Up captures that first love/first loss feeling better than anything I’ve ever read. I got sucked into Min and Ed’s short, lovely, sad romance. Daniel Handler knows that it doesn’t matter or hurt any less just because you’re 16—love is love, no matter how brief, flawed, or doomed the relationship might be. This book is a stunner; much like Ed Slaterton, even if you think you’re ready for it, it’s gonna break your heart.

Some highlights:

-Min is a movie lover to an extreme. She sees films in the theatre, compares her life to them and obsesses over the stars. They’re all completely fictional, but I found myself wishing Lottie Carson and Greta In The Wild were real, if only so I could see what Min loves so much.

-The book features not one, but two Halloween parties! Any book that features a climactic scene at a Halloween party is automatically better, in my opinion.

Why We Broke Up introduced me to the wonder that is the Egg Cuber. I thought it might be a device made up for the book, but no, you can really make eggs square.

-Daniel Handler writes Min so convincingly that I think he must be some sort of magical, psychic being. How else could he describe a teenage girl so accurately? Min’s feelings—her hesitancy, her divided loyalty between her friends and Ed, her willingness to overlook Ed’s faults—all pulsate with the emotions of real life. I guess Daniel Handler is either a psychic or a genius or just a really, really good writer.

-You can also check out the website for The Why We Broke Up Project.

Are there any young adult books you’d like to see in next week’s column? Let us know in the comments!

Featured image via Goodreads ; bottle cap image via Image via RISD

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