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Thumbs Down to WHY WE BROKE UP by Daniel Handler

AUTHOR: Daniel Handler with artwork by Maira Kalman

LENGTH: 368 pages

PUBLISHER: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

SUMMARY: Amazon Best Books of the Month, January 2012: Min, precocious and equally obsessed with classic cinema and good coffee, broke up with Ed, a popular math-loving jock who secretly carries a protractor. Daniel Handler weaves this heartrending story of first love and other powerful firsts as Min reveals, item by item, what’s in the box she’s leaving on Ed’s doorstep. As readers learn why these two unforgettable characters broke up, the significance of these simple love tokens, beautifully illustrated by Maira Kalman, charmingly unfolds. Written with an emotional depth that allows both adult and teen readers to revisit memories of heartbreak and find pieces of themselves in Min–and maybe even Ed, Why We Broke Up will leave you wondering how Handler knows exactly what it’s like to be a teenage girl in love. –JoVon Sotak

REVIEW: I was intrigued to read this one for several reasons. There was quite a bit of discussion on the interwebs about the book. Readers and reviewers seemed to be taking sides and very few were in agreement as to its Printz worthiness. I can completely understand that after finishing it Saturday night. I also wanted to see what Handler was like outside of The Series of Unfortunate Events because I hadn’t read any of his books published under his real name. After I finished reading, I closed the cover and sat with what must have been a look of consternation because The Hubs asked, “Still trying to figure that one out?”

But I wasn’t really confused, I just didn’t have an immediately recognizable gut-feeling about it which is odd for me. I didn’t really like it but it was difficult to put my finger on exactly what bothered me. The basic story of first love and first break-up is familiar enough. Handler’s tale does conjure memories of one’s first love and all the emotions involved therein. But beyond the relate-ability of the story, there isn’t a whole lot to recommend it besides the artwork.

Min is overly verbose, even for a teenage girl. Her descriptions, and sentences for that matter, drag on in a self-questioning stream of consciousness that is dizzying. I found myself rereading chunks of text trying to decipher Min’s rambling explanation of her feelings or even just her description of the high school gymnasium. She and her friends speak with an odd syntax that is off putting at best and confusing at worst. Ed is just as linguistically confusing and while his love of math is endearing, he’s still the typical Popular Jock-Jerk and I’m still trying to figure out why Min wanted him in the first place. I really wanted to know what Al said about Ed. I can imagine what Al might have said but I think it would have made for a better conflict complication to let readers contemplate Al’s critiques of their relationship.

The ending seems to have been purposefully anticlimactic to emphasize the over-dramatic nature of all first break-ups. And while I understand that Min and Ed are no longer together, I felt the closure that Min is so clearly seeking in ridding herself of the mementos is encumbered by the length of the letter. Yes, most first break-ups engender wallowing overlong in the memories of the relationship, but this is a detailed, minute-to-minute transcript of their relationship which I’m positive Ed will neither completely read or appreciate. And the idea of her penning the entire tome on the way to drop off the box with a pit-stop at a coffee shop is far-fetched. Maybe if she had started the letter at home, several days earlier, it would be believable to FINISH it in the car and coffee shop. And, as most first-love resolutions are, the ambiguity of the status of the Al/Min situation is frustrating as well.

There are some interesting qualities in the book. The artwork is eye-catching and adds a layer to the story. Most readers an remember saving those bits of tickets and scraps of napkin that reminded us, for a time, why we liked that guy or this girl. The way it’s sprinkled throughout the book without preamble is refreshing and might keep readers engaged when they want to abandon the story altogether. And, perhaps unnervingly, Handler captures a teen’s immersion in and consumption by first love almost perfectly. Most readers, adult or teen, will identify with the consuming nature of Min’s scattered thoughts and emotions surrounding her relationship with Ed and its effect on her life. Perhaps the breadth of its appeal is why so many people have hailed the book as such an accomplishment but I think teens will be more confused by and, frankly, tired of Min and Ed. Even before finding out why they broke up.


One thought on “Thumbs Down to WHY WE BROKE UP by Daniel Handler

  1. Interesting. I haven’t heard of this one, but I have to admit that it sounds intriguing.I think, like you, I’ll have to read this one for myself, to see what it is that everyone’s taken sides over.

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