Breaking Up with Why We Broke Up
So. What makes a good book? It's a tough, and perhaps ultimately unanswerable, question. And if there is an answer, it certainly varies from person to person (Every reader his [or her] book -S.R. Ranganathan).
When I first heard about Why We Broke Up, the new Young Adult novel written by the great Daniel Handler and illustrated by the great Maira Kalman, I knew that I had to read it, because I thought it had the potential to be a great book. But, as will happen from time to time, I thought wrong.
You may better know Daniel Handler as Lemony Snicket, the pseudonym under which he wrote the thirteen book series A Series of Unfortunate Events and a variety of other childrens books. I actually read the entire Series during my first semester of graduate school. I was continuously blown away by these stories, excited to re-read these stories with my own children (circa 2022), excited to recommend it to parents and kids asking for new series to read (and I recommend it to you now. The first book is called The Bad Beginning. You can put it on hold right now.). I knocked it out over the course of a few months (what with the grad school). I subsequently read Adverbs, one of several of Handler's more adult-oriented titles, and quite enjoyed it.
Maira Kalman is best known for her illustrations. She does have a history of collaborating with other authors, including Michael Pollan in Food Rules and an easy picture book with Lemony Snicket called 13 Words, but she has written several books on her own, for children and adults alike. My introduction to Maira was with her The Principles of Uncertainty, a beautifully illustrated sort of art memoir. I would also recommend putting this book on hold right now.
Unfortunately, something went awry with this collaboration between Handler and Kalman.
Ed and Min have broken up. The mystery of the book, as the title may imply, is why they broke up. The story is in the form of a 350-page (with illustrations) anti-love letter that Min (16) is writing to Ed (17) regarding the contents of a box (a set of keepsakes Min sentimentally collected during the course of their MONTH AND A HALF LONG relationship) while she is on her way to return the box to Ed. Each section begins with an illustration - beautifully, artfully done - by Kalman of one of the objects inside of the box, followed by an anecdote written by Handler (as Min, age 16) of why it is inside the box and how it incidentally caused them to break up.
The reason Ed and Min broke up is, of course, not at all surprising or climactic, basically something that's been written so many times that it is beyond a cliche at this point. High school, hormones, identity crises, ETC.
The book tries to sell itself as a story about heartbreak that you may find all too familiar. And maybe some of you do, or will. But if you do, do us all a favor and not write a 350-page book about it.