Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

Daniel Handler isn’t quite as famous as Lemony Snicket. The Unfortunate Series of Events series catapulted the Snicket name into the upper-echelons of literary stardom. The series became one of the most popular among children, bazillions of the books were sold and an unfortunate (snap) movie was even made.

All the while the man behind the Snicket pseudonym – Daniel Handler – published three books under his own name (The Basic Eight, Watch Your Mouth and Adverbs) none of which were received nearly as well. There was just something more appealing about Lemony Snicket. Even his picture books like The Composer Is Dead and even his piece supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement had a certain flair that ‘Daniel Handler’ had never quite captured. Happily, this changes with Handler’s first Young Adult novel - Why We Broke Up.

Min Green has recently broken up with Ed Slaterton, co-captain of the school basketball team. In a grandiose act of closure she dumps a letter and a big box on Ed’s front porch. The box contains a mix of eclectic objects – each one a piece of memorabilia from their relationship – bottle caps from the beers they drank on first meeting (as seen below), a movie stub from their first date, stolen sugar from a favourite café and more. Each chapter revolves around an object – each of which is gorgeously portrayed in full colour by illustrator Maira Kalman. The book is Min’s letter to Ed, a catalogue of their time together and reasons for the breakup – although you’ll have to wait till book’s end to find out how things really ended.

Min’s narration is kind of jarring on first read, with strange sentence constructions and phrasings, but it has a wonderful rhythm to it and once you’re in with it, you stay in. The more you bounce along with Min’s rhythm, the more it becomes apparent that Handler has crafted the beautifully honest voice of someone recovering from the peaks and valleys of first-time love.

There’s much to relate to in Why We Broke Up: the falling for the wrong person, the euphoria of new love, the friends and family members who aren’t yours but must be navigated anyway and the awfulness of a break-up that happens suddenly, even though it has been coming for some time. And yet, for the most part, relationship clichés are avoided. Ed wants the relationship to exist in and around his basketball life, but Min has other ideas and ensures they do other things together too - like stalking an old woman who may or may not be a movie star from yesteryear and making a miniature igloo from cubed eggs and stolen sugar.

Lemony Snicket found his groove long ago. Reading Why We Broke Up it is clear that Daniel Handler has now found his. This novel just feels right. And while the spoiler is in the book’s title (they break up), Handler’s meditation on and dissection of a relationship is equal parts heartbreaking, heartwarming, ugly and beautiful. Which again, feels exactly right.