Arts

BOOK REVIEW

‘Why We Broke Up’ by Daniel Handler

With each failed relationship comes debris, souvenirs of love that did not work that must be either returned, destroyed, or forgotten: his baby blue sweater, her copy of “Love in the Time of Cholera,’’ his plans for the holidays, her promises for the future. Breakups can be messy, ridiculous, and, particularly for teenagers, devastating. In his first book for young adults, Daniel Handler, also known as author Lemony Snicket of the “Series of Unfortunate Events’’ novels, shows how they can be poetic as well.

Meredith Heuer
Author Daniel Handler.

We know from the title that this book will not have a happy outcome. High school junior Minerva “Min’’ Green meets senior basketball star Ed Slaterton when he crashes her best friend Al’s “Bitter Sixteen’’ party. She saves two beer bottle caps from the evening, a movie ticket from their first date, and a slew of other tokens, such as a pinhole camera, toy truck, and an egg cuber from throughout their relationship. This novel is her post-breakup letter to him, which she writes as Al drives her, in his “father’s shop’s truck’’ to Ed’s house to return everything she has collected. Maira Kalman’s bright, whimsical illustrations of the various objects are integral to the story. Min explains each item’s significance, recounting an intense romance between a popular athlete and a girl who’s “different.’’

Min wants to be a movie director someday and her letter is rich with descriptions of old film scenes and glamorous stars of the silver screen. She’s a wry, temperamental, and memorable tour guide through the just-over-a-month-long affair. From the date during which the couple trails a woman Min suspects to be a faded film star to a post-game bonfire with bad music and beer in plastic cups to the final breakup scene, Min imagines her life playing out on the big screen and her memories are tinted with both the joy and pathos of first love.

Advertisement

The high romance is tempered by humor. Min observes of Ed, “There was always a girl on you in the halls at school, like they came free with a backpack.’’ And the writing can be both dizzying and sharp. Min explains in her letter, “We couldn’t only have the magic nights buzzing through the wires. We had to have the days, too, the bright impatient days spoiling everything with their unavoidable schedules, their mandatory times that don’t overlap, no matter what promises are uttered past midnight, and that’s why we broke up.’’ Oh, to have had such insight in high school!

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

This is not always an easy book to read. At times it’s confusing: Are Min’s parents separated or together?; Just why is jazz “embarrassing’’? And sometimes its language is preciously idiosyncratic: How can “lousy rock’’ music be as “bold and dull as a giant potato’’? Nonetheless, the emotional payoff is worth the effort. When Min reveals the ultimate reason she and Ed broke up, you find yourself wishing you could have somehow spared her the pain.

There’s always a litany of reasons for the end of a relationship, but of course they’re only obvious in hindsight. Min berates herself, “I’m not a romantic, I’m a half-wit.’’ But aren’t all people in love half-wits? That’s the tragedy, beauty, and, as Min would say, “whatnot’’ of it all.

The book has its own Tumblr site (www.whywebrokeupproject.tumblr.com), where people can post their own breakup anecdotes. The stories are funny and heartbreaking; some deserve novels of their own.

Chelsey Philpot is a book review editor at School Library Journal. She can be reached at chphilpot@gmail.com.