Sunday, December 17, 2017
Books

Review: First love crashes back to earth in 'Why We Broke Up' by Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket

they might as well have been born to the Montagues and the Capulets.

The narrator of Why We Broke Up, Min (short for Minerva, and don't call her Minnie) Green, and her first and former (as you can gather from the title) love, Ed Slaterton, are from totally different teenage tribes.

Min is the wisecracking film buff who hangs out at the coffee house after school with her friends, a gang of fellow junior cynics who throw a "Bitter 16" birthday party for Min's lifelong best friend, Al.

It's there that she has her first encounter with Ed, who crashes the party with what Min calls his "grunty jock crowd" after a basketball game. Ed is the team's co-captain, a self-assured, handsome golden-boy athlete whose almost-as-golden ex-girlfriends trail after him like ducklings.

He is not Min's type, and she is not his, yet as they share bitter beers in Al's backyard (well, Ed drinks his, Min surreptitiously pours most of hers on the lawn), sparks fly. As Min will say later — the teenage equivalent of a lifetime later, two months — "Where does something like this come from? How can you find it ever again, just what you wanted at just the right time? Never, probably."

Why We Broke Up is a young adult novel by Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, author of the hugely bestselling A Series of Unfortunate Events books for children. He trades the arch, mock-Victorian tone that made those books so irresistible for a most convincing version of a contemporary 16-year-old girl's voice.

Why We Broke Up is illustrated by Maira Kalman, veteran of many New Yorker covers and writer-illustrator of books for both adults (And the Pursuit of Happiness) and kids (Fireboat). She and Handler previously teamed up for the children's book 13 Words.

This time around, her charming paintings reflect the device that structures the story: Min is returning a box filled with the debris of their broken romance to Ed, and as she considers each object — a movie ticket, a torn poster, a toy truck, a stolen sugar dispenser — she writes about it in a letter to him, spinning out a love story that is both painfully specific and utterly universal.

On their first date, Min and Ed go to the Carnelian, an art-movie theater that she loves and he describes with his all-purpose pejorative: "gay." (Min makes him stop using it, but he never takes her objections seriously.) It's both a mark of his interest in her and a sign of the differences between them that he has never been to the Carnelian before, but consents to seeing a silent film, Greta in the Wild, to please her. At the film, a swooningly romantic tale, Min spots an old woman in the audience whom she believes is the movie's star, Lottie Carson, and hatches a plan to meet her.

Min takes Ed to other places he's never been, like Tip Top Goods, a "magical" shop open only a couple of hours a week and full of parasols, taxidermy, antique postcards and books and all sorts of "whatnot" (one of Min's favorite words). He takes her places she's never been, like basketball practice.

Min is smart enough to recognize the hurdles in their way, but she is hopelessly swept away as maybe we can be only the first time we fall in — well, a lot of it is lust, but it's love as well.

She finds herself floored by how "beautiful" Ed is; just thinking of laying her finger across his hipbone takes her breath away. But she loves their banter, his easily affectionate nature; she even loves the nerdy protractor he carries around and is half in love with his cool older sister, Joan.

I read some of Why We Broke Up and listened to the rest on audiobook. The latter version is read by Khristine Hvam, who does a wonderful, expressive job with not only Min's voice but those of other characters.

Handler's novel does a splendid job of capturing the experience of a first intense romance, when every event and object fairly glows with significance. He also draws other characters — Min's friends, Ed's exes — vividly (although virtually no adults make an appearance). One of the book's most alluring features is Min's obsession with old and foreign films — all of which Handler invents, so persuasively I was disappointed I couldn't queue them up on Netflix.

Almost all of Why We Broke Up rings that true. There is one revelation during Min and Ed's climactic fight that I couldn't buy, a fact that a girl like her would have known (or Googled).

But everything else — how much first love thrills us and breaks our hearts, and how we get over it — is in the picture.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.

   
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