Why We Broke Up, by Daniel Handler
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (December 27, 2011)
Format: Hardcover Edition
Minerva “Min” Green is…different. When people first meet her, they all want to call her arty (which she despises) because she wears thrift store clothing, hangs out with a potentially gay best friend, loves avant garde cinema, and wants to be a meaningful, art house movie director. She peppers her speech with details about the lives of bygone movie stars and long forgotten foreign films and at her core is quintessentially different from all other high school girls but never is she arty. Ed Slaterton, high school basketball star, doesn’t know what to make of Min when he crashes her best friend, Al’s, 16th birthday party. Ed is your basic jock who lives, eats, and sleeps basketball and doesn’t realize a world outside his own exists. He finds Min intriguing, unique, and utterly enthralling because of her differences and their chance encounter at the party leads to a heady but brief love affair between the two. It slowly and unerringly follows their first meeting at the party to their first date at an old black and white movie, to Min’s first time meeting Ed’s sister, Joan, and his close knit group of basketball buddies, to Min’s slow disassociation with her own circle of friends. We watch them quickly and inevitably fall into and out of love. It is the huge breadth of differences between these two that finally drives them apart and Min is devastated. In an effort to purge her heart of all that remains of Ed, she writes a missive to him which she deposits on his doorstep along with all of the mementos of their shared time together. This book is that missive.
I have to be brutally honest. I did not like this book. I mean, I did like it for all the reasons that make everybody like it and which mean that it is fundamentally unique: it is witty and ironic and makes demands of the reader that most YA fiction reads just won’t do. It makes you think and wonder about the nature of love: if we want only what we can’t have, if we choose to ignore the signs of adultery, if we all are destined to be hurt in love and if we in fact like to be hurt. It is obviously well thought out and the author is extremely clever. But I didn’t like it. And here’s why:
1. The author knows he is clever. Now, I can’t be sure if the character Min is actually pretentious or was merely supposed to appear pretentious but with the underlying understanding that she’s a reflection of high school stereotypes or arty girls in general. Either way, you can just tell that Daniel Handler knows how smart and clever he is as he’s writing this and that he is patting himself on the back as each chapter draws to a close. There’s one point where Min and her bf, Al, are planning his 16th birthday party and in an effort to be different or unique or whatever they host a Bitter 16th party. Everything they served was bitter from the ale to the gorgonzola cheese dip to the bitter, inedible cake. And don’t you get it? Bitter 16 not sweet 16. Isn’t that so clever? Ugh. Not. God, like the author, you can just see the characters congratulating themselves on how clever and unconventional they are. I couldn’t tell if Handler wanted us to find Min and Al woefully naive or just plain stupid, or even if these two were actually supposed to appear as if they were pushing the envelope on “outside the norm” with their dumb party. Personally I found their brand of high school weirdness uninspired and banal but again, I can’t tell if Handler is making a point with how uninspired it all is. Like is he thinking, “this is what people expect of the arty teenage crowd and I’m going to drown them in it but it’s really ironic because god, these characters are beyond obnoxious and pretentious! This is so deep of me writing a book about a girl who is different but is in fact, just as trite as all high school kids. Her uniqueness is based on the fact that she likes movies! Old movies! Ones with no speech even! That’s daring, ooh…but is it? Is it just a reflection of what we want to see?” I couldn’t take it anymore.
2. This is written as a letter. I get it. It’s stream of consciousness at its best and if you were to read it aloud, it might actually be poetic and meaningful. But we’re not reading aloud and when the basketball star comes off as some wacked out, high school Yoda, I think it has got to stop. Case in point (one of about…ten bagillion),
Min says to Ed: “Well, I don’t have them. I’ll help you get them out of the attic. They’re not too Christmas-y, are they?”
And He replies, “White, some of them are.”
Who is he, Yoda? Again, god! Annoying. Everything Min says or thinks or feels comes out as a cryptic poem that the reader has to decipher. Where’s the verb? Where’s the subject? Is there going to be punctuation? But I don’t want to decipher it because there’s no way in hades that the basketball star would ever talk like this, even in Min’s ragingly unique mind.
3. There are pictures to accompany each memento she returns to Ed with the letter. Pinpointing why I disliked this aspect so much is tough but I think it stems from the fact that the writer knows he is clever but thinks that the reader is not ergo he has to supply pictures for us. In much the same way he feels the need to beat the dead horse that is Min’s uniqueness among normal people, he has to beat the reader with a picture of every single thing she talks about as the story progresses. Personally, I thought that children’s book authors used pictures as a way of showing a story through a means other than words as most young readers can’t read. But I can read and I found it annoying and frankly, childish. The subject matter is anything but childish and yet, I’m shown pictures of what a bottle cap looks like. Keep beating that horse.
4. Every character was a caricature of his- or herself. Min was the unique, arty girl. Ed was the jock who cheated on her. Annette was the jock’s ex-girlfriend who cheated with Ed. It’s like every character was thought up to be representative of every stereotype you’ve ever had about that type of person or character. Jocks are dumb and not faithful: enter Ed! Cheerleaders who used to date the jocks are sluts and can’t be trusted with other people’s boyfriends: enter Annette! Arty, thrift store clothes wearing girls will choose something unique to latch onto in order to appear uber cool within their group: enter Min! The only slight variance on this theme is Al the effete best friend whom we all assume to be gay but is in actuality, in love with Min. Again his existence makes me wonder if Daniel Handler is sitting back somewhere rubbing his hands together and saying, “Everything is working according to plan. They think they know what will happen…but they won’t! My stereotypes are well crafted but Al will blindside them! Ha!”
5. Ed, jock extraordinaire, uses the word Criminy in his sentences in utter seriousness. Really? Really now? Come on! This kid uses the F- word everywhere, plays high school basketball, has dated half the female population of their high school, and is such a stereotype of the hometown jock, and he uses the word criminy in daily speech. If such a being exists in real life, I’ll eat this book.
Based on the following criteria:
How much did I like the heroine: 1. If you haven’t guessed already, I hated her. But it really wasn’t her fault. She just came across as so pretentious and annoying that nothing that happened throughout the novel, no matter how horrific, could force me to root for her or like her in any way. I’m sorry. But really I’m not.
How much did I like the love interest: 1. The beauty of Ed is that you want to like him. You’re pre-disposed to like him really. He’s like the star quarterback of the football team, you root for him because he should be the good guy and you already know pretty much all of the moves he’s going to make. You know he’ll be dumb and unread but have a sweet, tender heart that opens slowly and gracefully under the fingers of the heroine. But Ed is just stupid. He’s everything you despise about men and stereotypes.
How believable is the plot: 10. I had a box of crap I saved from my time with Wes, the floppy haired, guitar playing high school boyfriend. I waited and bided my time to fling it back in his face just to hurt him but in the end, when I was ready to do that, I just didn’t care anymore about him and threw it in the garbage. Min should have done that too, it would have been cathartic because we all know that Ed didn’t care about her box of crap especially if he was getting some Annette action on the side. But the story itself was completely plausible. We all know the heartbreak of a bad breakup.
How much did I like the writing style/editing/etc: 10. Not for nothing but Daniel Handler is a good writer. I’ll give him that. He has a clear voice that seems authentically female and teenage so his being a middle-aged man makes it remarkable. The pacing left a lot to be desired but the story itself is lyrical and whimsical and like I said at the very beginning of the review, is a book that makes you think which is refreshing.
How much did I want to keep reading: 1. Did you read my review?!
Final Score: 4.6 / 10 Huh. Surprisingly, Why We Broke Up gets almost a 5 for all that. I’m a little stumped on the math. Let me go over it again…no, no, it’s right. Well, all I can say is you might like it, you might hate it. I’m sure you can tell which way I swing.
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