Daniel Handler, please be my Valentine. There’s not a single damn thing you’ve written that I don’t love. This includes the new picture book 29 Myths On The Swinster Pharmacy, which was authored by some suspicious bloke named Lemony Snicket. (Snicket writes an awful lot like Handler.) But today is Valentine’s Day, so here is a love story which implodes spectacularly before Valentine’s Day even comes around. Talk about good timing! But honestly, I don’t like romantic stories very much, so this is the best I could do upon remembering the date. February 14th? So that explains the sudden, raging success of Junie B Jones And The Mushy Gushy Valentine at my shop. (If I had to give a more thematic recommendation, that would be the one. Can’t go wrong with Junie B, but Daniel Handler is even better.)
Min Green and Ed Slaterton aren’t necessarily made for each other, but they fall in love and stumble around through a passionate high school romance until – quelle surprise! – they break up. The book begins at the end of their story: Min is returning a box of relics from their relationship, and what we read is her long letter to Ed that goes with it. Maira Kalman’s illustrations of each object – items like a file which meant to be baked into a cake, a weird spiky seed-pod thing, and a meaningful box of matches – are simple and interesting and make the reading process rather a joy. Ed’s the basketball team co-captain. His friends are jerks and he goes through life with the blinders of popular-senior-boy success blocking out a great deal of his surroundings. Min has long been part of those surroundings, obsessed with old movies and drinking fancy coffee with her artsy friends. But, she insists, she’s not actually artsy. She’s not good at art. She doesn’t make good grades or like beer very much. Yet, somehow, she and Ed start talking at a party. They start to date, stalk a possible movie star, insult each other’s friends, behave explicitly in parks, tell each other secrets, give each other weird gifts, and eventually break up. Min’s bitter, tender, stream-of-consciousness letter is like one very long Tumblr quote, in the best of ways. Open up to any page and you’ll come across something like this:
“And it wasn’t just us. It wasn’t just that we were high school, me a junior and you a senior, with our clothes all wrong for restaurants like this, too bright and too rumpled and too zippered and too stained and too slapdash and awkward and stretched and trendy and desperate and casual and unsure and baggy and sweaty and sporty and wrong.”
“There are so many movies like this, where you thought you were smarter than the screen but the director was smarter than you, of course he’s the one, of course it was a dream, of course she’s dead, of course, it’s hidden right there, of course it’s the truth and you in your seat have failed to notice in the dark.”
It’s a surprisingly heartfelt story, and I don’t have much of a heart with which to feel.
Why We Broke Up is probably the most mainstream of Daniel Handler’s books: it distills all the sublime dialogue and weird adolescent energy so prevalent in The Basic Eight into something more realistic. In The Basic Eight, the teenaged characters are extravagant, and their lives go totally nuts as the plot gets weirder and weirder. (Read my review of The Basic Eight here. It was my favorite book I read in 2013.) The opposite seems to be the case in Why We Broke Up. Stylistically, the books are similar. You’ll recognize your favorite weird Handler/Snicket-isms sprinkled throughout. Big words. Pretentious drinks. Vintage pop culture. Interesting food. But Min, Ed, and the other characters just feel so vividly real, so tragically similar to the people you encounter on a daily basis – just with better one-liners. Even the minor characters are excellent, and perfectly evoke the awkward balance teenagers almost always fail to strike between love, family, and friends. And, since they’re minor characters in Daniel Handler’s capable hands, you know they’ll be witty and judgmental and possess obscure talents. In this particular book, though, teenagers are distinctly teenagers even when they’re making igloos out of cubed eggs for an aging film star’s secret birthday party.
My favorite part of the book? They steal a sugar dispenser at one point, to make a cake which requires stolen sugar. That’s just one of the Various Fictional Details which make Why We Broke Up an indespensable part of the Handler/Snicket universe I love so much. Adults in this book are almost entirely useless, and that never fails to make me happy. We’ve got kids navigating the treacherous world of romantic nonsense guided only by their disobedient hearts and terrible judgement. We’ve got nerdy references and sordid affairs. If you want more nerdy references and sordid affairs, check out the Why We Broke Up Project, in which many of my favorite writers and some hapless readers share their own tales of heartbreak, woe, and bad music. Isn’t that what this holiday is all about? So happy Valentine’s Day, readers. Don’t screw it up.
Star Ratings for Why We Broke Up
Characters: ***** (5 stars)
Character Development: ***** (5 stars)
Plot: **** (4 stars)
Writing: **** (4 stars)
Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)
Age range recommendation: 13 and up