As the title implies, this book begins with the ending. High school junior Min has prepared a box of mementos to return to her ex-boyfriend, senior basketball star, Ed. Each item in the box signifies a memory from their relationship, and as Min recounts these stories, she tells the tale of how they fell in love, and, ultimately, why they broke up. In the brief span of their weeks long relationship, they face the challenges of different peer groups, dating experiences, and cultural tastes. Min also must grapple with the paradox of losing herself in love without losing herself.
I enjoyed the mosaic presentation of the relationship through the various artifacts. We only get Min’s perspective on the events, so the story has a definite slant. We see what we want to see, until we don’t. By cataloging item after item to document the relationship, Handler subtly captures the adolescent compression of time, where hours feel like days and months feel like years. (Remember how long summer felt when you were a kid?) The format and perspective give a several week relationship much more weight than any adult “fling.” Despite his obvious effort to create rounded characters, both Ed (the jock) and Al (the effete) come across as flat stereotypes of high school boys. Handler does capture the students’ perspective of high school as an endless loop of busywork and blah, blah, blah punctuated with blissful conversation and connection when the evenings and weekends bring “free” time. As a camp counselor and a high school teacher, I caught myself repeating a familiar refrain whenever I failed to live up to my students’ expectations (“Mr. Bachmeier, you said we were going to watch a movie…You said you would tell us the story of the Big Raft…You never brought your gumball to class…”) and it seems an appropriate response to this book: “Let that be a lesson to you: Boys lie.”
Summary: Min is not arty. She’s simply “different,” the difference only noticed by those outside her close-knit group of coffee-drinking, foreign film-addicted friends. They spend their time discussing movies and school and alternative Halloween parties, until Min catches the eye of an uninvited outsider at a bitter birthday party: Ed Slaterton. Not any sort of hipster Ed Slaterton, but popular, new-girl-every-week, basketball-playing, after-partying Ed Slaterton. From the first date, she’s totally smitten, but her friends aren’t, especially her insistently-not-gay, been-there-through-everything best friend Al. When she chooses her boyfriend over her past life, will it work out? Or will her off-style clothes, unique personality, and lack of air-headedness make it all come crashing down?
Evaluation: Why We Broke Up is a letter. The format is strange to read, as it’s based around a collage of symbols of their relationship. It doesn’t flow naturally, and the plot isn’t really there. The excellent writing in each individual paragraph makes up for it though: it’s a weird gorgeous sort of prose that feels like it wants to be poetry but isn’t. I hadn’t run across this much before, so it was really interesting. Overall, because of the total lack of interesting plot, I wouldn’t read it again…but that might be because I already read it twice.