Under my bed is the hatbox my mum gave me when I turned 21. In that hatbox is a jumble of receipts, tickets, cards, notes and tidbits–many of them from the early flushes of my relationship with my husband, whom I’d started dating not long after. When we moved in together, I found that he had his own hatbox of sorts that contained all sorts of mementos from our first dates. Since then we’ve expanded our collection of hatboxes: we have a wedding hatbox, and a hatbox for each overseas trip we’ve taken. Yes, we’re the type of people who made mixtapes in our pre-teen days, and yes, one day we’re going to make our poor children go through it all.
Our hatboxes trace our relationship from those back-in-the-olden-days until now, but we’re fortunate that we have a happy ending: a serious tiff or two, and those boxes might have landed outside one or the other’s door, a shrine to something that was, a reminder of everything that was good but that went so bad.
Daniel Handler’s Why We Broke Up is exactly this: its central conceit is the use of an array of hatbox-style artefacts to post-humously excavate and autopsy a brief but fiery teenaged relationship. The box is filled with all sorts of ephemera: salt shakers, rose petals, movie tickets, condom wrappers, each of which marks a moment, some small, some important, in the relationship between Min and Ed, and the written narrative is all about Min’s response to each of these items and the memories and emotions it evokes.
It’s a book that could so easily be too knowing, too pat, too condescending, but Handler’s approach is raw and honest. Min’s document is an account of an unlikely relationship, where both participants are baffled at their involvement, but nevertheless find themselves pressing on, trying to make sense of the attraction they feel towards each other. Each artefact Min muses over marks, in some way a turning point or a potential fork in the relationship, and at the end of so many of the chapters comes the refrain “and this is why we broke up”.
Because, after all, a break-up is so often a cumulative thing, the combination of all those little misgivings that point to a shaky foundation. Those differences may seem minor, but it’s when someone makes no effort to resolve them, or worse, when they do, but in a way that feels oddly insincere or resentful, that makes them gradually grow until they’re unavoidably looming, lingering there. There’s Ed’s discomfort at learning to drink coffee, for example (“try it with cream and three sugars”), and Min’s sheer boredom at the thought of watching Ed play basketball (“is it okay to do my homework or read a book?”). And then there are those faux pas that are inevitable when two separate social groups are awkwardly cobbled together into one happy friendly family, not to mention the added challenge of family politics…really, it’s astonishing that any relationship is ever successful.
Why We Broke Up will likely embarrass you, as if you’ve ever suffered through a relationship that didn’t work out, you’ll see yourself or at the very least those close to you here. This book is full of those awkward firsts, those uncomfortable times where you’ve said The Wrong Thing, those inevitable moments where your expectations about a relationship, and about your relationship in particular, are utterly divergent. (Oh, Min, why, why did you think it was a good idea to mention a two-month anniversary?)
I suspect, too, that if you’re one of those in your first relationship, well, you might hate this book a little bit: it’s everything that you don’t want to hear right now.
But it’s not a vindictive book, though it has its moments of raw pain. It’s an odd mix of lament and celebration: because even in those failed relationships there are always moments of happiness, moments that you’ve looked at that artefact that marks a turning point and decided to continue on even though the odds seem stacked against you. Why We Broke Up is a an antidote to the endless stampede of “first love is forever” young adult novels, and it’s a welcome panacea to those romantic indulgences. It’s beautifully written, achingly real, and the design is heart-breakingly perfect: the book’s an artefact of love in and of itself.
With thanks to Hardie Grant Egmont for the review copy
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