Sunday, April 8, 2012

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman

The Book Talk:

The Review:

I should probably start this review with a small disclaimer -- I love Daniel Handler (well, Lemony Snicket)'s writing.  I know that it's not everyone's cup of tea, and to some people it can seem affected and forcefully quirky, but it is exactly the kind of writing that speaks to me.  This is also my first experience reading a novel illustrated by Maira Kalman (I've read some of her picture book works), and the I believe the two creators fit together perfectly.

This is Daniel Handler's first foray into writing for teens (he's written plenty for younger kids and for adults), and I believe he was wildly successful.   Here's why:

The Characters:

Again, this is just a personal thing, but I really think that the character of Min is beautifully crafted. I really, really  identified with her.  She is kind of a quirky kid who has artsy interests but would never describe herself as "artsy", she starts dating a guy that NO ONE thinks she should match well with (but hey, she loves him, and she's going to go with it), and she's not perfect by any stretch of the imagination.  I sometimes have an issue with male writers who try to write accurately as females, and I really thought that Handler did a great job of creating a real, whole, female teenager.

While in a lot of ways I didn't like the character of Ed, I felt like I knew him really well and that he could be a real person.  He was very focused on sports, and he likes Min a lot, but he can't ever really explain why since they really do have very little in common -- he's the perfect balance of desirable but not necessarily likable, and Handler does an excellent job of painting him in a realistic light.

And then, the secondary characters are all equally compelling and important to the story!  I hate it when authors introduce secondary characters just for the purpose of having them around without fully forming them as human beings.  All of the people in this book were really people.  I could imagine them and imagine myself knowing people like them in high school.  So well done.

The Writing:

There is just something about Daniel Handler's writing that gets me on a very visceral level.  I just FEEL the language.  I don't really consider myself the kind of person who cares about language and well-written-ness above all else in a book, but in this one the writing really brought the story to another level.  I feel like I can't explain myself accurately without giving you an example, so here's a quote from Why We Broke Up:

"Ed, it was wonderful.  To stutter through it with you or even stop stuttering and say nothing, was so lucky and soft, better talk than mile-a-minute with anyone.  After a few minutes we'd stop rattling, we'd adjust, we'd settle in, and the conversation would speed into the night.  Sometimes it was just laughing at the comparing of favorites, I love that flavor, that color's cool, that album sucks, I've never seen that show, she's awesome, he's an idiot, you must be kidding, no way mine's better, safe and hilarious like tickling."

I love it when writers take liberties with language -- writing more for feeling than for story, but still managing to propel the story forward anyway.  The entire book is written like this, and it's just great.  There's a particular passage toward the end of the book that really got to me when Min is explaining how she sees herself that helped me really get the feeling that Daniel Handler really understands his characters, and is really an expert at creating them through language.

The Illustrations:

Why We Broke Up as a piece of written literature is, on its own, a great work.  What brings it up to yet another level is the addition of Kalman's illustrations.  Bright and unusual and realistic while keeping a sense of whimsy, they really add to the atmosphere of the writing, and the words and pictures together perfectly.  I hope Handler and Kalman continue to work together, because they really do seem to be on the same wavelength.

Basically, whether it's because of my biased opinions or not, this is definitely the best book I've read so far this year, and I can't imagine that another book is going to surpass it (I'll let you know if it happens).  Recommended for fans of John Green, lovers of unusual written language that doesn't follow the rules, teens who don't fit in, and adults who didn't when they were teens either.


  1. I found this book hard to believe, because kids today don't pass notes, they text. They don't sleep on a bed, they sleep on a Kindle. They don't eat a banana, they eat an iPhone.

  2. I'm also a big Lemony Snicket fan, and had high hopes for this book, but didn't love it as much as you did. I LOVED the writing (esp how Handler can just make up movies for the sake of fiction, and have you believe they are real movies, nay disappointed even that you cannot put them in your Netflix queue because they are in fact constructs of his brilliant imagination), and I loved the characters of Min and her friends, but I never liked Ed, couldn't see what she saw in him at all, and called his inevitable betrayal from the beginning. Ultimately, I'm glad I read it, but I'm not handing it to all my friends and patrons saying "READ THIS READ IT NOW!" *shrug*

  3. Adding it to the TBR pile. Thanks.

  4. Wow! This book sounds really incredible. Thanks for the fantastic review, I'm going to add this to my TBR straight away. :)

    New to your blog,
    Steph @ Stepping Out of the Page