Daniel Handler’s “Why We Broke Up,” a birthday gift from my brother, took me two months to finish — not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because it’s so dense, with pages-long stream-of-consciousness passages consisting of carefully chosen phrases that would be a shame to rush through. So I read this book like I’d eat a cheesecake, in small bites, savoring each one.
The tale of a teen romance that’s run its course is told in the form of a letter written by Min Green to her ex-boyfriend Ed (addressed as “you” throughout, which takes a little getting used to; I occasionally had to remind myself, “Oh right, I’m Ed”). There’s plenty to relate to in the details of their courtship: if you are high-school age or older, you no doubt have kept a box of mementos, counted “anniversaries” after only days or weeks, struggled with jealousy over past relationships or worried about your friends’ opinions of your significant other. All of it feels perfectly natural here, and Handler treats it respectfully. “Why We Broke Up” seems aimed at adults as much as teens, but Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) also writes books for children, so he’s clearly tapped into the mindset of younger readers.
My one criticism of the book is that, while these seem like real teenagers, they seem to exist in no particular place or time. As a writer of historical YA fiction, I’m super-focused on the little details, such as such as references to technology and pop culture, that help make a setting feel tangible. The technology in this book doesn’t help pinpoint an era: the characters draw maps on paper napkins instead of pulling them up on their smartphones; Ed calls Min at home but the phone just rings so he hangs up (but later on it is revealed that she has a cell, so why didn’t he just call her on that? Do teenagers even call each other at home anymore?). And they have the Internet, at one point attempting to stream a movie on a laptop, yet there is a great deal of speculation over whether a former movie actress is living in their unnamed town, when a quick Google search could have revealed plot-spoiling details.
The pop-culture references peppered throughout the book don’t help give the reader a clue either, because they all come from Handler’s prodigious imagination. Like Cornelia in “Love Walked In,” Min is a huge fan of old movies, but the difference here is that the movies she references exist only in the world of the novel. It’s a testament to Handler’s talent that the fictitious references to music, movies and TV shows all seem perfectly plausible, but it was another aspect of the book that slowed down my reading, because nothing was familiar. (I learned it takes more brainpower to mentally compose a tune for the “Catty Cat” theme song than it would to simply hum along with a song I already knew!)
All in all, this was an enjoyable escape into a world that seems equal parts reality and fantasy: reality in the emotions of the characters, fantasy in all the surrounding details of their lives. If you’re thinking of reading this book, my advice is to try not to be distracted by the nebulous setting and just enjoy the arc of Min and Ed’s relationship. Love, after all, is timeless.