Author/Artist: Daniel Handler/Maira Kalman
Genre: Young Adult, Romance, Contemporary
My Rating: ★★★★ (3.5/5 stars, 3 for story & .5 for art)
Call it humorously off-kilter or poetically peculiar, but I have always viewed heartbreak as some kind of a Pandora’s Box. You take the whole package after that final blow from your beloved, unlock it, then let all the little devils residing in the cracks of your broken heart fly away until the only thing left is the healing butterfly of moving on. This is the metaphoric image I’ve engraved in my mind upon learning that when some couples call it quits, one party usually returns things that may remind him/her of his/her ex.
When I sat down with Daniel Sandler’s Why We Broke Up, I readied that image to juxtapose with Min’s boxful of trinkets she is returning to her ex-boyfriend. The contents of both packages clicked together, but I’d be lying if I say I wasn’t expecting an out-of-the-box (no pun intended) tale from Lemony Snicket of A Series of Unfortunate Events fame. What I got instead is a run-of-the-mill love story from a hormonal, quirky teenage girl with a penchant for classic movies.
But that does not mean I did not like it.
Basically, the whole book is a letter accompanying all the debris from Min’s romantic relationship with high school basketball star Ed Slaterton. The tone is clever at times and constantly bittersweet, and the stream of consciousness narration is fittingly juvenile. There is nothing new with the plot, but the common intrigue triggered by being presented with a literary tray where someone’s raw emotions were laid out for complete exposure will get the better of you. I wasn’t immediately put under whatever spell other reviewers claimed this book possesses, but somehow, when I learned to connect with Min, I managed to somewhat enjoy it despite myself.
I guess the best word to describe Min’s voice is…young. You know, typically precocious and almost histrionic. This pretty much explains why many readers thought she sounded eye-rolling-ly exasperating, especially that the tone is glued to all her angst-laced rants spilled shamelessly in a letter that is more than 300 pages long. Her mantra of self-loathing, the long strings of expletives, and the heaps upon heaps of run-ons may come off as intolerable to many, but I think it is the perfect tone for a young adult world rotating in an axis called “heartbreak.” She is vulnerable, very much like everyone else who weeps inwardly while bearing the brunt of a failed affair. I could even say that is exactly the reason why the novel carries a realistic shade.
I believe Min is akin to a mirror from the past for us older readers. Most of us have experienced being young and stupid in the love department; we have at some point thought we were smart, and we surprised ourselves for relenting to the wild commands of our hearts (or in some cases, hormones) when that certain person barges into our lives. If we could only go back in time and listen to our teenage selves sulking and sniveling about people that shattered us, we would effortlessly recognize bits of ourselves in the narrator. It’s been a while since I had a little…“emotional catastrophe,” but this book seemed to amplify that it hasn’t really been that long since I left my melodramatic self in the bat-squeak echo of Yesterday. Because of that past, and the similar instances Min goes through when it comes to placing her identity in the society, I was able to acknowledge the connection between me and Min. That made my reading experience more relatable, if not exactly enjoyable.
Of course, how can I forget Maira Kalman’s pastel-colored illustrations? All of them wowed me from the start. Every chapter kicks off with a full-color drawing of each bauble in the box, and I dare say they added more concreteness and appeal to the book. I’m going to check out other books that Kalman illustrated, that’s for sure.
Over all, the novel is good, but it’s something I’ll recommend with reservations. Handler successfully interweaved the goal of reminding you of the joys and sorrows of being in love with a fairly decent story. I give this 3.5 out of 5 stars (the .5 is for the illustrations).