I’ve mentioned before that Daniel Handler is my favorite author. So you can imagine my delight in finding out he had a new book coming out, my slow joy as I got to peruse the accompanying website, my excitement in getting to hold the book and my attempts to make it last as long as possible. It’s like Christmas: the anticipation is fantastic, but you know the end is coming and then you have to wait for more. At least with Christmas, you know exactly how long you have to wait, with new books, who knows. So reaching the conclusion of Why We Broke Up was bittersweet: I had a fantastic time, but was sad to see it end. Spoilers from here on out…
Why We Broke Up is the story of the relationship of Min (short for Minerva, never call her Minnie) Green and Ed Slaterton, from its accidental start to its bitter end. Min presents Ed with a box of souvenirs from their relationship, describing each one and what happened to make them special or hateful. It’s done in letter format, post-breakup, so between that and the title, you already know how it’s going to end. That doesn’t stop it from being emotionally gripping, and I spent the latter half of the novel seeing the looming danger signs and internally screaming at Min to stop, don’t go forward, don’t love him, don’t sleep with him, etc. Towards the end, Min’s long rant about all the reasons why she’s not “different,” as jock Ed and all of his popular friends keep claiming she is, is so honest and painful and word-perfect that I was fully embarrassed to be reading it, not to mention embarrassed that she’d send this self-shaming litany of faults to the boy that’d crushed her heart. But that fits in so well with Min’s character. She gives so much of herself, too much, at the wrong times.
I read an interview with Handler saying that the advice he was given, regarding writing from a female perspective, was to “just have her think and do everything a man does, while being self-conscious about her body the entire time.” Min is so wonderfully relatable, because she’s so wonderfully average: she has a distinctive hobby that makes her seem unusual, but really only in the context of other high school kids, who go to basketball games and bonfires. It makes her seem nerdy, but she’s not, the other kids call her arty, but she isn’t. The letter format means we never really see Min in a non-Ed environment. Though we occasionally see her interacting with her friends or mother, it’s never beyond the context of what is relevant to the story she is trying to tell Ed. As such, our only real glimpse of her is in the moments leading up to meeting Ed, planning a Bitter Birthday party for best friend Al. There, she is clever, creative, a good friend, and we can see why Ed is drawn to her. She’s different from the girls he knows, the drunk and bitchy sorts that go to all the games and parties, while Min likes to frequent coffee shops and arthouse theatres. She doesn’t try to change Ed, she tries to better him, tries to introduce him to coffee (which he loves) and get him to stop using ‘gay’ as a negative adjective. He loves her, or thinks he loves her. He definitely loves the way she makes his life differently interesting. Which is why the breakup is inevitable.
And Min encompasses, so wonderfully, the despair of a breakup, how we blame ourselves even when it’s so clearly the other party’s fault (which it entirely is, in this case) (this was cut from a much larger section, but if the point is how relatable you find Min and her breakup, then I thought I’d choose the selection I liked the most):
I make out like an imbecile, I fool around foolishly, I lost my virginity and couldn’t even do that right, agreeing to it and getting sad and annoying afterward, clinging to a boy everyone knows is a jerk bastard asshole prick, loving him like I’m fucking twelve and learning the whole of life from a smiley magazine. . . . How wrong to think I was anyone else, like thinking grass stains make you a beautiful view, like getting kissed makes you kissable, like feeling warm makes you coffee, like liking movies makes you a director. How utterly incorrect to think it any other way, a box of crap is treasures, a boy smiling means it, a gentle moment is a life improved.
I just want to hug this girl. She falls into the trap of being young, feeling everything so strongly, wrapped up in a series of ‘firsts’. But I feel confident that she’ll be okay. And I’m just going to sit here and wait until I get a new book.