[Book Review] Why We Broke Up

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“I was stupid, the official descriptive phrase for happy.”

Sometimes the end of a relationship is difficult to explain. Sometimes it isn’t. When Min Green and Ed Slaterton – respectively a movie-director-wannabe and a basketball player at a regular high school that I’m sure looks a lot like yours – break up, it certainly isn’t easy to pinpoint what when wrong, but Min manages to do so with perfection. After filling a box with her ex’s belongings that were still in her possession, Min drops the box and a letter at Ed’s doorstep, explaining in a long, long text and going object by object, why they broke up.

That is the basic story line to Why We Broke Up (Daniel Handler, Electric Monkey, 368 pages, read in Portuguese: Por Isso A Gente Acabou, published by Companhia das Letras). Handler, famous for writing A Series Of Unfortunate Events as Lemony Snicket, creates the text that, accompanied by Maira Kalman’s beautiful illustrations, covers the story of Min and Ed’s relationship, from object number 1 and how they got together to the last one, showing how every day they were a couple was a day closer to their breaking up.

The book is beautiful. Not only because of Kalman’s drawings – which seem to have been handmade by Min herself, so perfectly they fit the character’s style -, but also because it is rich in detail and speaks truthfully through the voice of a teenager, without sounding fake or pretentious. Min, a lover of old movies, is a great, complex character, who escapes all cliches and is, therefore, highly credible: she likes things, she hates things, she feels jealous, she feels numb, she takes a stand, she gets hurt. I have rarely come across a fictional teenage girl so coherent, reminding me instantly of Juno MacGuff and her strong personality.

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Other than Min, there were three very strong points for me in this book. First of all, the rhythm. I’m a big fan of authors who write on the perfect pace for the story, getting you to fly through pages and even (am I the only one who does this?) to breathe according to the lines and dialogues. Handler is a master of rhythm: there are paragraphs of Min’s thoughts that go through pages, some with very few dots, which gets the reader on and on with her opinions, understanding her logic and feeling her pain better. It made me wonder if the author had ever read José Saramago, who uses that same technique, even if he takes it to the extreme.

A second aspect that touched me was how Min’s friend, Al, clearly had a crush on her without her noticing. This isn’t even a spoiler, I swear – it is very explicit from the first pages on. Just like Meg Cabot, Handler has that great ability to reveal facts unknown to the character who is telling you the story, making the reader go wild, trying to shake Min by her shoulders and point out what she can’t see. And, of course, rooting for her to notice that her sweet friend is better for her than jock Slaterton.

The third – and best – aspect of Why We Broke Up is also the most shocking one. Reading the book, I was fascinated by Min’s favorite movies and wanted to watch every single one of them. She referenced titles, actors, plots, release years, everything. I considered making a list of all those wonderful movies I absolutely needed to watch as soon as I was done reading it. Imagine how heartbroken I was to find out that none of them existed. Not a single one. Handler created title by title, story by story, of at least fifty different movies, an information that, I must confess, brought tears to my eyes. You don’t have to write deep, complex plots to be a genius – brilliancy is waiting to be discovered by eager hearts in every corner of human creativity. I’m still desperate to listen to Hawk Davies, the fictional jazz artist whose songs seem to play as a soundtrack throughout the entire book.

Though the translation to Portuguese was poorly done (I even had to mentally translate some parts back to English in order to understand them), this is such an adorable, honest book that Min’s heartbreak will speak to any reader in any part of the world. Even if we can’t have Min’s movies, songs and thoughts, the author makes it possible to love them unconditionally, just as she loved Ed Slaterton unconditionally. Love is, after all, an international language.