Why We Broke Up, or Remembering the Onion Shirt

why_we_broke_upWhen I heard that Daniel Handler, of Lemony Snicket fame, had written a young adult novel with a romantic bent, I’ll admit I was intrigued. My children adore the Series of Unfortunate Events books and I love, love, love listening to any and all interviews with him, particularly his Fresh Air interview from 2004. Daniel Handler is one of those rare authors and people who isn’t at all ashamed of his intellect. Of his predisposition to odd references and awkward jokes. He is like one of those kids in high school who (like me) could quote the entire script of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and not think that was odd at all. In fact, he (like I) probably wore it as a badge of honor. His books are filled with references to little-known books and long-forgotten movies, as if the entire book were colored in sepia like a beautiful vintage photograph. And he’s hilarious. One of my favorite all-time tidbits from his book When Did you See Her Last (part of his All the Wrong Questions series) is when he introduces the name of the local grocery store and it is, wait for it, Partial Foods. Handler has a gift for this…for trundling along in his mysterious, occasionally rambling way, and then inserting a little treasure like Partial Foods into the text to really emphasize his quirky awesomeness.

But a young adult romance? About breaking up? I guess I could somewhat picture it, given some of the more sentimental moments and themes in Unfortunate Events, but I had to find out for myself if he could pull it off. And pull it off in a book told from the point of view of a teenage girl. Enter Why We Broke Up. And enter my amazement.

What could read as a schmaltzy, overdone, we-broke-up-and-I’m-crying-while-listening-to-The-Cure tome, surprises with its sweetness. Its realness. Its ability to quickly undo the reader with a lyrical and almost scientific analysis of the aftermath of a break-up. In the book, the main character Min writes a lengthy letter to Ed, her now ex-boyfriend, using artifacts from their relationship to tell the tale. She has delivered a box filled with these items (as many of us have done) on his doorstep and is now cataloging them for us in great detail. I will say that one of my favorite things about this book is Maire Kalman and her gorgeous illustrations which are strewn throughout the book like little gifts.  From a toy truck rescued from the beach, to a movie ticket stub, to two caps from bottles of Scarpia’s Bitter Ale, these relics from their relationship tell a tale that is both heartbreakingly familiar and entirely new. It’s an old story of teenage love, but one that is infused with a new freshness.

On the negative side, for the parents out there, there is some language in the book. The F word. The S word. And one of the biggest bones to pick I have with the book is that Handler allows Min’s ex-boyfriend to throw around the other F word as a derogatory reference to homosexuality. I hate that about the book and honestly don’t think it was necessary to go there. Perhaps Handler’s proving a point, by characterizing Ed in a way that the reader will be suspicious of from the get go, but I just can’t read the careless tossing of that word into a book as anything other than disrespectful and tasteless. It is a point of contention between Min and Ed, but I think there might have been better ways to set up that dynamic that this.

And sometimes the wordiness is a bit much. Handler can run away with himself (a trait I have found in his other books as well), but if you’re willing to just keep reading you’ll find some of the most beautiful nuggets. Moments like “The days were all day every day, get a grade, take a note, put something on, put somebody down, cut open a frog and see if it’s like this picture of a frog cut open. But at night, the nights were you, finally on the phone with you. Ed, my happy thing, the best part.” Handler gets it. He gets the pain of a break-up, particularly as an adolescent and his Min, in her poetic and self-deprecating way, manages to make even this almost 40 year old, feel that pain again.

We’ve all been broken up with and we’ve probably all been the breaker as well. And, while neither side is particularly delicious, being on the receiving end of the end is nothing I would want to live through again. It’s long diary entries and being told my shirt smelled like onions so I might as well just leave now. (True story.) And only someone as talented as Daniel Handler could take me there again, and can show young people just at the introduction of such events, how it is done and how beautifully it can be handled.

In the end it’s worth reading. It’s an honest account of a very intelligent girl who is grieving something that may not have been altogether beautiful in the first place. But that hindsight, as we all know, doesn’t come until much later. And even then, perhaps some of us wouldn’t necessarily change a thing.