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Why We Broke Up by D. Handler

Handler, Daniel. Why We Broke Up. Illus. Maira Kalman. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2011. Print.

In 1975, Judy Blume published Forever, in which a girl meets a boy at a high school party, dates him, falls madly in love with him, sleeps with him, and then breaks up with him. The novel was the first of its kind— a frank and sexually explicit portrait of teen love, delivered by a modern, post-women’s-lib female narrator. And while the book scandalized some readers, it became a coming-of-age touchstone for others. (Indeed, this reviewer remembers getting a copy from her mother – a bit embarrassing, given all the sex that was in it – as a sort of warning of the pleasures and pains of incipient adulthood.)

Fast forward thirty-five years to Daniel Handler’s Why We Broke Up, in which a girl meets a boy at a high school party, dates him, falls madly in love with him, sleeps with him, and then breaks up with him. Not quite the trailblazer of a story that it was in 1975, but a fascinating (and in many ways superior) revision of the doomed-teen-romance downer.

Daniel Handler is, after all, known to most as Lemony Snicket, and readers may detect shades of Snicket in the sly wit and mordant humour that infuse this particular series of unfortunate events. But his improvements on Blume’s prototype do not stop at style. For one thing -- and this is a big thing -- Handler invents a far more interesting narrator to tell the tale. While Min Green encompasses the moods and caprices typical of the teen girl umwelt, she also displays repertoire of quirks unwedded to age or gender: an obsession with cult cinema, a wicked sense of humour, and a singular worldview disclosed to the reader in lyrical, synaesthetic morsels. (“Enormous as a shout” is how she first describes Ed Slaterton, her love interest.)

Through Min’s voice, Handler creates something that is less a love story than a headlong plunge into the teenage psychic cosmos— that welter of sensory, emotional, and cultural bric-à-brac that young people accrue in their projects of self-creation. The book is cluttered with spurious allusions to movies that were never made, musicians who don’t exist, food and beverages not on offer anywhere outside the text. (Viper shots, anyone? How about a bottle of Scarpia’s Extra Bitter?) These are a clever device on the author’s part; instead of attempting to tap the vocabulary of teenage cool (and burden the novel with effortful hipness), Handler fabricates a pitch-perfect simulacrum.

As befits a post-2000 story of young love, there is a visual counterpoint to Handler’s text. Each chapter begins with the image of an object -- a bottle cap, a comb, a pair of earrings – rendered in lush oil paint by artist Maira Kalman. All are mementos of Min’s and Ed’s relationship, and all are cast away as Min comes to grips its ruin. But just as love leaves a trace that cannot be easily expunged, so the images conjured by this novel will resonate, mournful and comic, long after the book is closed.

Highly recommended:  4 out of 4 stars
Reviewer:  Sarah Mead-Willis

Sarah is the Rare Book Cataloguer at the University of Alberta's Bruce Peel Special Collections Library. She holds a BA and an MLIS from the University of Alberta and an MA in English Literature from the University of Victoria.