This is not a written piece centering on a personal anecdote. As I say that, many might sigh a breath of relief, thanking their heavenly Gods. As much as I love spindling my experiences into written works, the main character of today’s blog post is the novel Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler.
I couldn’t tell you when I got this book—sometime in high school—but I can tell you exactly why I held it in my palms and led it toward the counter, the car, my room, and finally, my shelf. WWBU first caught my eye with its illustrated cover.
You’re probably thinking: What in the holy space cows is she talking about? Almost all book covers are illustrated!
The specifics of the cover let on more than one would think, and this is accomplished through two elements and two only. First is the font of the title. It’s a simple, handwritten one, evident through the unruly mix of upper- and lower-case letters as if it were scribbled without much thought or hesitation. There the title lies, plain as day, no beating around the bush, unenigmatic. Without flipping through the pages of the book, one is already informed about the contents of the story. It looks like the kind of writing you would find on a letter, hastily crafted—and that is exactly the format in which the story is told: with Min writing a winding letter on the car ride to drop off a box of relationship mementos at Ed’s house.
Secondly, the illustrated rose petals gathered on the bottom of the cover. Rose petals are widely utilized throughout film and writing as a symbolism of romance, which is why question marks appeared above my head to see it scattered on the cover of a supposedly tragic story. Then, you flip to the back cover and see this: “Every breakup starts with a love story”. You immediately know what you’re in for.
I dare say WWBU is in the top five of my favorite reads of all time; yet, unlike books such as City of Girls or The Bane Chronicles, I’ve never attempted to broadcast the brilliance of this book. I don’t think it’s my selfishness to gatekeep this book, more so the fact that I am still processing it after so many years.
Due to my habit of submerging myself in more sadness when I’m already upset, I have decided to pick up the book once again while listening to my designated sad Spotify playlist (it worked, waterworks were cued). From this time’s reread, I have pinpointed three brilliances of this book that can explain why I am still taking this book in and perhaps forever will remain in this literary limbo.
The First Brilliance
This is not exactly a work of fiction. Well, it is. Ed and Min, our protagonists, are crafted fictionally and it’s unlikely that there will be another couple who stalks an aged movie star home or steal sugar from a restaurant in the same manner they did. However, it feels like the development of their romance has happened / is happening / could happen to somebody in the real world.
WWBU is constructed around one of the most common human experiences: breakups. The fallout of relationships is something depicted on silver screens and reiterated by mankind every single day. It’s a reality, a familiarity. There is no fantasy embedded into this story, unlike the chronicles surrounding Harry Potter or Percy Jackson. Even though there are a handful of books of similar trope waiting on bookshelves, I’ve yet to come across one that fully encapsulates all stages of getting into and out of a relationship this detailed and accurate.
As much as the reading community champion books such as The Hating Game, The Unhoneymooners, and It Ends With Us, it’s less realistic that you will meet the love of your life and foster a lungful of hatred for their guts and pretend to be their date for some fancy occasion, compared to meeting them in a high school setting and naively thinking they are the one. Of course, it’s not completely fair play to judge the three mentioned titles to WWBU; every book aims to convey a different story and is the brainchild of authors who have walked in vastly different shoes, but I am simply singling this out as one of the reasons I champion WWBU.
The relationship between Ed and Min is not one worthy of a standing ovation. There is no happily ever after. No enemies to lovers. No only-one-bed trope. No prince charming on a white horse. No sacrificial love that makes the world explode. It is simply girl meets boy, girl and boy fall head over heels for each other, boy cheats on girl, boy and girl break up.
If you’re looking for a completely original written work, this book is not the direction you should be glancing in. WWBU is as mundane as it can possibly be and that’s what makes it great. In a literary world where writers are pining after original plots and fantastical universes to sweep readers off their feet and leave them begging for more, Handler took something so ordinary to the human living experience and turned it into an extraordinary story.
The Second Brilliance
That would be the way this story belongs to me and at the same time not. WWBU walks you through the stages of two people meeting each other for the first time to them breaking up. If you’re fortunate enough to have never been subjected to the fixing pain of heartbreak, you will understand how it feels through this book; and if this feeling is an old friend of yours like it is mine, then congratulations, you get to relive the ache and misery of it all.
But why would you want to ever sit in the ache and misery of it all?
Here, we depart on a tangent. The beauty of a breakup is that it is a memory unique to two people. Pain and suffering are how humans learn the fastest and most efficiently (it sounds cruel, but such is fact). Losing a person you thought you were going to spend the rest of your life with is a traumatizing event, to word lightly, but it is also an experience through which you reevaluate your emotions, mental state, and priorities. Every time you intentionally revisit a heartbreak or are accidentally reminded of one, you learn that much more about yourself (e.g. what you like, what you look for in someone, the kind of person you’re willing to spend time on, what makes you happy).
Back to the second brilliance; once an artist’s (songwriter, painter, writer, etc.) work is published for the world to see, it no longer purely belongs to them. I say this because art is subject to individual judgment. A painting that conjures up happy memories for you might enact the opposite for another; hence, all of us own a slightly different version of a certain art we’ve come across.
That’s what I mean when I say this story belongs to me. I see myself reflected in some paragraphs of the book, with Min performing actions I’ve once done and sputtering words I’ve once uttered; I see in Ed that cockiness and fragile masculinity I’ve observed in boys over my life (no shade). This book acts as a mirror for me and because of how much of my past emotions intersect with Min’s, I have come to claim a part of this book for myself.
It’s largely impossible for me to do this with my other top books picks; in The Bane Chronicles, Magnus’ adventures are magical and wizardly, involving fighting off greater demons and summoning them sometimes; in City of Girls, I know I will never move to the big city and work for a theatre house while living frivolously like Vivian did. There are no parts of their stories that I can see myself in; all I can do is read them, imagine them, and close the book.
The Third Brilliance
Brace yourself for the contradiction that’s about to take place. I love this book because of how much it makes me hate it.
You read that right, this is a literary work that I love to hate. I hate how idyllic everything is. I hate the run-off sentences describing the most trivial things and the nonsensical thoughts that the protagonist conjures. I hate how, sometimes, the paragraph runs on for too long and I forget just what I’m reading. I hate how the author writes as if he is Min’s stream of consciousness, throwing in awkward filler words and phrases in places they don’t have business being. I hate that with every relic of Min and Ed’s relationship revealed, another piece of their picture-perfect is revealed to be ugly. I hated how this young, high schooler who had her whole life ahead of her chose the wrong boy. I hate how she could be that blinded by love to not see that she was sacrificing her happiness just to build his pedestal. Most of all, I hate how I’ve been there before.
This brilliance is going to take a while to explain for it to make sense, so buckle up, kids.
One thing you should know about this book is that the author is Daniel Handler. If the name rings no bells for you, you’re not alone. It was only after a quick Google search that I realized Handler is the author of A Series of Unfortunate Events under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket.
I personally have never read the book series but have been an audience of the adapted TV show (big fan, big fan). You don’t have to be an avid watcher to pick up on the unique way of narration in the show, which I can confidently infer is influenced by the original book series. Instead of adopting the usual straightforward tone of narration, works of Handler’s take up a ‘stream of consciousness’ approach, mixed with a dash of the occasional higher-level vocabulary that even I have to look up the definition of.
Here’s an early paragraph that exemplifies said narration:
But just suddenly I really, really needed to see you again right that minute, that night. I squoze by that guy who won the science prize, and looked in the dining room, the den with the framed photos of Al uncomfortable on the steps of church. It was flushed, every room, too hot and too loud, and I ran up the stairs, knocked in case people were in Al’s bed already, picked up the cardigan, and then slipped outside for air and in case you were in the yard. And you were, you were… There’s no reason I should have been out here like this, in the yard, on a limb… What was wrong with me? What was I doing? But out loud I was talking to you and asking you what was wrong.
The repetition of ‘really’, the usage of the informal ‘squoze’, the insignificant details mentioned such as ‘the guy who won the science prize’ and ‘the den with the framed photos with Al uncomfortable on the steps of church’ — it’s as if we’re being presented with a platter of Min’s unfiltered thoughts. Most of what someone thinks does not have any association with us and it serves us no good to retain them as valuable information. A writer only has so many pages and has to make the most out of them, so you can’t help but wonder why Handler chose to include those insignificant details. It isn’t until further inspection when you realize that this is exactly how we function on a daily basis. Handler didn’t write Min’s character in a manner where she would be evidently fictional, he tried to make her as real as possible and emulated the way an everyday person thinks and acts.
In reference to the excerpt inserted above, Handler has perfectly captured the moment of Min subconsciously developing feelings for Ed through the usage of simple vocabulary, only the occasional fanciful or bombastic vocab. “There’s no reason I should have been out here like this“; we find ourselves thinking the most ridiculous of thoughts and performing the most senseless of actions when we throw caution to the wind and embark on the road to developing feelings, most of the time without fully understanding them at all.
This ‘stream of consciousness’ writing is tedious to follow along and I found myself needing to repeat the paragraph to get a grip of comprehension, but the exhaustion we feel from that matches the exhaustion Min feels trying to keep afloat her relationship. That is why I love to hate the book. Here’s another excerpt for good measure:
… school before practice, you changing quick and shooing away your warm-upping teammates until you had to go, one more kiss, had to, one more, OK now really, I really have to go.
Furthermore, let’s dive into the meaningless dialogues the book houses. As I’ve previously said, most artists try to make the most of their medium; a painter only has a limited canvas and colors to work with, a songwriter only has a few minutes and verses… you get the idea. Still, Handler is willing to sacrifice lines of the book to bring out the most mundane dialogues. Here is an extract:
You smiled at me. “I don’t know.”
“It totally does.”
“OK,” you said, and stepped into the street, pulling me with you. “It does, it does.”
“Wait, we should wait.”
“It’ll look suspicious to go right in. We should wait, like, three minutes.”
Again, I use the word mundane. Sometimes we say things for the sake of saying them, without christening them with deeper-than-life meanings. Most authors avoid this and opt for longer sentences or fabricated dialogues to give their characters depth and mystery, but here we have Min and Ed’s conversation, as trivial as a piece of buttered bread. How could I not hate the bore of it all? At the same time, how could I not adore the simplicity?
Let’s not forget the fact that there is nothing inherently likable about the characters themselves (thankfully, Min does not serve as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in this story). In certain parts of the book, Min comes across as annoying and clingy, while Ed wears arrogance on his sleeves. They’re simultaneously cute and unbearable, much like their very relationship. It almost seems as if Handler did not construct Min and Ed for us to love them, rather, for them to exist within their own sphere without a care for what the readers might think. There is no redemption arc for either of the characters nor a satisfactory explanation for why Ed cheated. The story does not extinguish with a bang or reach an unforeseen climax. You do not know how you feel about the characters at the end of the book, they just revert to being strangers to you.
Sure, there is a universally agreed-upon hatred directed at Ed, who cheated, but I felt little to no empathy for Min either. In my opinion and dissection, she eventually grew to view her relationship with Ed as a chore: having to attend his ball games and sit at the bleachers and cheer when the team makes a score like the jock’s loyal girlfriend, scheduling two separate Halloween parties to satisfy both Min and Ed’s mutually exclusive friend groups, and more. It became a pair of shoes she woke up to wear every single day, already numb to the damage the demanding heels are causing her. She does not see the pain or want better for herself because, well, she never thought she could afford the shoes (I should end the shoe analogy here). Here was a boy who doesn’t remember the stupid details about his girlfriend and even trashes her friends. It got me thinking: if I were Min, I would’ve broken it off with Ed a long time ago.
But I was Min. And I didn’t take my own advice.
This here is the third brilliance. The way the book is written so seemingly effortlessly makes me want to claw at chalkboards and wooden floors, longing for catharsis. I hated their relationship from the very beginning because I knew Min was falling for someone temporary, someone who isn’t going to be there for her ten years down the road. It was your usual low-key girl meets jock boy trope, but I wanted the story to be more than that so badly, even though the title had promised me a breakup. I ached for more when I knew there wasn’t going to be any, and that is how real life is.
It’s terrifyingly boring. It’s nothing like the movies. And that’s what sets this book apart from your other romance reads on the shelf. It’s full of pain and suffering but only from within can you derive beauty and purpose. We cannot be too caught up chasing the hurt that we don’t learn the lesson.
You don’t read this book for a happy ending or a hero’s mile, you read it to have a phantom slice your chest open, retrieve your still-thumping heart, and crush it before your watering eyes. You read it to see two perfectly fine people—and consequently yourself—fall apart. Then, you look at the blueprint, try to fix yourself up, and move on (to the next book).
When all is said and done, read Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler. Even I’m not done falling in love with this book.