Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

As soon as you pick up Why We Broke Up, you can tell it’s something special. Its thick pages that seem more suited to coffee table photography books make the book feel ridiculously heavy for only 350 pages. But, these pages are worth it: a quick flip through reveals beautiful illustrations by Maira Kalman before each chapter. Kalman also illustrated the dust jacket and the physical cover underneath it. Furthermore, instead of reviews on the back cover, there’s breakup stories from famous authors, such as Neil Gaiman, Brian Selznick, Sara Shepard, and more. This endearing quirkiness is essential to the atmosphere of the book, which at times feels uncomfortably authentic, like snooping through someone’s diary and discovering a bombshell.

This strangeness is best made sense of by considering author Daniel Handler, better known as Lemony Snicket. A Series of Unfortunate Events, his beloved children’s series is fantastically bizarre (as is its Netflix adaptation) and was one of my favorites in elementary school. After reading A Series of Unfortunate Events, I thought I was well prepared for his quirks when I began Why We Broke Up. I was sorely mistaken.

“The thing with your heart’s desire is that your heart doesn’t even know what it desires until it turns up. Like a tie at a tag sale, some perfect thing in a crate of nothing, you were just there, uninvited, and now suddenly the party was over and you were all I wanted. I hadn’t even been looking, not for you, and now you were my heart’s desire.” 

First, I’m glad a waiting between reading A Series of Unfortunate Events and Why We Broke Up. I read the series when I was ten and now I’m the same age as Why We Broke Up‘s protagonist Min. When I was ten, I don’t think I would have handled frank discussions of sex and drinking well. But now I feel like I grew up reading Daniel Handler in the way 90s kids read J. K. Rowling.

Why We Broke Up starts to get weird around chapter three. Min is named after Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, and also coincidentally the name of my cat (only I named her after the Harry Potter character). Even stranger was the library receipt I found nestled between pages 19 and 20. It was a receipt from 2017 for three books, coincidentally all which I had loved. This didn’t bother me until I was almost done with the book and decided to give the receipt, now my bookmark, a closer look. It was my receipt. The library card number was my number. I have no memory of checking out Why We Broke Up in 2017 and I definitely didn’t read it until now, but somehow, my receipt was there. This made me feel like just as unreliable a narrator as Min, and like I was living in the dreamy, destiny-controlled world she described.

For all of these strange occurances, Why We Broke Up was actually pretty challenging to read. Min has a very distinct voice and her tendency to ramble about obscure movies makes her character more vivid, but requires readers who don’t know anything about film to concentrate on exactly what you’re saying. Additionally, during conversations between two characters, Min hardly ever uses “he said, she said” which makes it unclear who was speaking. These small issues don’t take away from the magic of the book, but they do force the reader to continuously focus on exactly what is happening. Why We Broke Up is not a beach read or even really a plane or train read. It is something you need to read completely without distraction, or else you will get very confused, very quickly. Luckily, once you’re engaged, these traits add to the vibrance of the story.

I loved Why We Broke Up and so will you. Handler poignantly captures high school and first love in a way that most adult authors writing books for teens cannot. Kalman’s illustrations make me wish every book I read had pictures. If you’re willing to devote some time, you’ll fall in love with Min, Ed, and the story they tell.

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