Daniel Handler‘s Why We Broke Up is—just in case you weren’t sure—about the end of a relationship. However, it exhibits so much more than that. It simultaneously captures the butterfly-in-the-stomach-filled outset of a blossoming romance, while constantly, alluding to the inevitable impeding end. It is filled to the brim with emotion, with poignant, bittersweet reflection, and with heart—whether whole or broken.
This is one of those books that really spoke to me; I connected with it immediately, and understood the plight of our protagonist Min (Minerva, named after the Greek goddess) Green. Min gives Ed Slaterton a box. Within that box is contained a number of trinkets (ranging from a movie ticket to bottle caps to a jacket) as well as a letter. Through that letter, we watch Min working through the process of grieving over her breakup with Ed after their month’s whirlwind, unconventional, unexpected, her-friends-don’t-really-believe-what’s-happening romance. They shouldn’t have been together. All normal high school expectations dictate that their worlds shouldn’t collide, let alone lead to a relationship. His friends don’t believe it, her friends think she’s crazy—the forces fate seem as though they’re laughing at them. And apparently fate is right: they break up.
Though there is one single deciding factor in their break up, Min structures her letter to Ed around the objects in the box, linking each to their relationship’s demise, generally ending the section with “…and that Ed, is why we broke up.” Not only does she use those objects as vehicles for her story, but they also spark some deep, almost impressionistic, borderline stream of consciousness self-reflection. It feels like a letter that a jilted girlfriend would write, sometimes rambling, but that’s the conceit. Sometimes the amount of dialogue stretches that conceit a bit, but I could live with that. Through those objects, we do see that Min isn’t perfect: she’s filled with angst, with uncertainty, and she’s also blinded to what’s right in front of her. And though Ed is the one responsible for the break up, we don’t hate him throughout the entire novel. We see why she likes him: he’s good-looking, and he’s not from her world, so he represents what’s new and interesting. She gets a chance to show off for him, and he appreciates her, though he sometimes struggles to keep up.
In the end, the novel is an acute portrait of the hasty beginning and abrupt decline of a teenaged romance. It’s detailed, and the decisions made are not necessarily ones to emulate, though part of the novel’s resonance comes from the fact that it mirrors quite a bit of reality, making it a touchstone for many of its readers. In many ways it’s one of those coveted stories with holds universal appeal—not because it’s particularly happy, though the joy that Mina displays is palpable, but because nearly everyone will experience a breakup like this, and anyone who has gone through a break-up will find something familiar in Mina and Ed’s lamentable dissolution.