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Book Review: Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman Book Review: Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman

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 tidbitsmany of them from the early flushes of my relationship with my husband, whom Id 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 weve expanded our collection of hatboxes: we have a wedding hatbox, and a hatbox for each overseas trip weve taken. Yes, were the type of people who made mixtapes in our pre-teen days, and yes, one day were 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 were fortunate that we have a happy ending: a serious tiff or two, and those boxes might have landed outside one or the others door, a shrine to something that was, a reminder of everything that was good but that went so bad.

Daniel Handlers'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 Mins response to each of these items and the memories and emotions it evokes.

Its a book that could so easily be too knowing, too pat, too condescending, but Handlers approach is raw and honest. Mins 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 its 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 theyre unavoidably looming, lingering there. Theres Eds discomfort at learning to drink coffee, for example (try it with cream and three sugars), and Mins 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 politicsreally, its astonishing that any relationship is ever successful.

Why We Broke Up'will likely embarrass you, as if youve ever suffered through a relationship that didnt work out, youll see yourself or at the very least those close to you here. This book is full of those awkward firsts, those uncomfortable times where youve 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 youre one of those in your first relationship, well, you might hate this book a little bit: its everything that you dont want to hear right now.

But its not a vindictive book, though it has its moments of raw pain. Its an odd mix of lament and celebration: because even in those failed relationships there are always moments of happiness, moments that youve 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 its a welcome panacea to those romantic indulgences.'Its beautifully written, achingly real, and the design is heart-breakingly perfect: the books an artefact of love in and of itself.'''

Rating: star Book Review: Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler and Maira Kalmanstar Book Review: Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler and Maira Kalmanstar Book Review: Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler and Maira Kalmanstar Book Review: Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler and Maira Kalmanhalfstar Book Review: Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman (superb)

With thanks to Hardie Grant Egmont for the review copy

View a gallery of sketches from the book

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Other books by Daniel Handler:

The Basic Eight by Daniel Handler Book Review: Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler and Maira KalmanAdverbs by Daniel Handler1 Book Review: Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler and Maira KalmanWatch Your Mouth by Daniel Handler Book Review: Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman

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  1. Yes, I really enjoyed this book too! I know some people said it tried too hard but I thought this was poignant. I really love your last paragraph, its very beautiful and exemplifies how I feel about the book. Lovely lovely review!

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks so much, Elena. I know the book has a bit of a melodramatic feel to it, but to me that just felt so realthats exactly how I was as a teen. Falling passionately in love at the drop of the hat, hanging on the tiniest of actions and turning over every word or sentence and filing it all away for later examination (and self-flagellation). Its all so new that you cant help but do it, no matter how much you pretend otherwise in retrospect.

  2. Thanks Stephanie, I was placing an embargo on getting any new books (my TBR pile is horrendous at the moment) and now youre making me waver. I think i need to read this. You very rarely give such a high rating, so it must be good :).

    • Stephanie /

      And Im not at all sorry, Mo :) It really is very good, and the design of the book itself is just exquisitethick glossy pages with full-colour watercolour drawings. Beautiful.

  3. lab1990 /

    Awesome review. Ive heard varying things about this one but Ive still always wanted to read it. I guess I must now! Thanks for your honest thoughts, and for sharing the mementos that you and your husband collected. It really is a mark of a relationshipthose types of things

    and I like that a YA book IS showing that these relationships arent forever, as you said, since its very unrealistic.

    Lauren from

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks, Lauren! To be honest, it sat on my TBR for ages, as I was a bit leery about it. There are a few elements that arent quite followed through (the MCs relationship with her best friend, and Eds ill mother), but I think the book still works as Min is so swept up in her romance that its easy to imagine her focused on nothing else.

      Ive always found the happily ever after thing in teen YA a bit problematic, so its nice to see something that takes the opposite approach, and yet without being cruel or cynical.

  4. This one sounds good! Thats adorable that you guys have hatboxes. Love it!
    I find it incredibly boring to watch my husband play baseball. Is that terrible?! Whoops.

    • Stephanie /

      Haha, not at all. I find software development incredibly boring, but the husband loves all his geeky stuff. You need to have some differences to keep it interesting, I think!

  5. Amber /

    Would you suppose this would be more cathartic or depressing to the recently broken-up? Im eyeing it off for my little sister, and she would ordinarily love it Im sure, but I dont want to depress the poor sprog

    • Stephanie /

      Id say cathartic. Its about moving on, but its also about appreciating a relationship as well. And the idea of a relationship cleanse via a box of mementos might appeal to her!

    • Stephanie /

      Then again, it may depend on the circumstances of the breakup. If it was a nasty one involving behind-ones-back shenanigans, then maybe give it a miss!

  6. Amber /

    Thanks so much for the insight. If suppose I want to err on the side of caution, I can always save it till Christmas ;)

    Love your work!

    • Stephanie /

      Good idea, Amber! I hope shes doing better by then. :)

      Thanks for your lovely feedback!

  7. What a beautiful and thoughtful review and perfectly fitting for such a great book! You said it much better than I did!

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