Study Guide

Why We Broke Up

By Daniel Handler

Why We Broke Up Introduction

People are always saying that young love is the best, but as anyone remotely young (or young at heart, yo) knows, this is simply not true sometimes. With hormone and energy levels running high, young love can be just as awful as it can be perfect, with very little middle ground. Throw some other Major Life Happenings in the mix—such as cancer, the apocalypse, or becoming a vampire—and you have yourself the makings of some classic young adult lit. Only trouble, though, is that real life almost never looks like this.

Enter: Why We Broke Up, Daniel Handler's 2011 novel that takes a wholly different approach to this whole young love schtick. Instead of sparks flying in the face of imminent doom, this book tells the story of a brief relationship between two high school students through a collection of mundane objects like movie ticket stubs and napkins. These items were once treasured by Min, our narrator, who squirreled them away as tokens of her love with Ed Slaterton. Post-breakup, she's taking time to reflect on each item before dumping them unceremoniously on Ed's doorstep.

Sick burn, right? And classic real live teenager move.

If you're not familiar with Handler, you're in for a treat. Handler is a humorist who has written other fiction about sex and love, but he's best known for A Series of Unfortunate Events, a collection of children's books he penned under his pseudonym, Lemony Snicket. Across the board, Handler's style is glum but cheeky (think Morrissey), and he has a knack for building elaborate mythologies to support the world of his stories.

Much like Wes Anderson, Handler is an architect of intricately imagined worlds. Though we haven't seen the world of Why We Broke Up in a movie (yet), it comes to life in the novel through the illustrations of Maira Kalman. The book is the second in a series of collaborations between these two, who are friends in real life. Kalman's work, like Handler's, is celebrated for its charm and offbeat sense of humor, and she's best known for her illustrated essays and as a cover artist for the The New Yorker. Incidentally, she has a really cool apartment.

Together, Handler and Kalman have concocted a delightful breakup story—no, not for Min and Ed (it's a bummer for them), but for us. Try not to feel too badly about how much fun it is to read about their heartbreak: No real teenagers were harmed in the making of this book.

What is Why We Broke Up About and Why Should I Care?

There's no way around it: breakups stink. And let's face it: Unless you meet your soul mate right out of the gate, you're probably going to experience a few in your lifetime. Maybe you've already broken some hearts, or someone's broken yours. (Don't worry, Shmoop knows it was all the other person's fault.) It's pretty much inevitable, and unfortunately it doesn't really get any easier with practice.

On the other hand, though, reading about someone else's breakup doesn't stink at all. In fact, it can be extremely entertaining. (We could watch Buffy and Angel break up all day long.) It's so much easier to appreciate all the drama when it doesn't have anything to do with you.

Also, weirdly enough, other people's breakups can be educational. Sometimes our own relationships—romantic or otherwise—are so fraught that it's hard to have perspective. But you can study someone else's situation more objectively, like a specimen, and take those insights back out into the field, or the sea, or wherever it is that they say those other fish are.

As its title suggests, Why We Broke Up is a thoughtful meditation on the end of a relationship. But what's interesting is that it's also a portrait of the love story that came first. A lot of novels are straightforward in labeling characters as heroes or villains, but Why We Broke Up presents a more complicated picture where those roles shift and change, often quickly. Our girl Min tries to make sense of how the same person, Ed, has played so many different roles in her life—first as a starry stranger, then as a heroic boyfriend, and finally a villain and a heartbreaker.

In the parlance of Facebook, "it's complicated." But then again, life's complicated, you know? And Why We Broke Up provides a compelling model for how to make sense of it.

Why We Broke Up Resources

Websites

The Why We Broke Up Project
The book's official Tumblr includes readers' own breakup stories, to which Daniel Handler sometimes responds.

Maira Kalman's Creative Website
Learn more about the illustrator's work and life, and generally explore her creative style.

Articles and Interviews

A Longie but Goodie
In which the A.V. Club interviews Daniel Handler, to great effect.

Video

Daniel Handler Talks About Why We Broke Up
The author interviews people at Grand Central Station about their tales of heartbreak and woe.

A Ted Talk That's Totally Worth Watching
The weird, wise, and wonderfully talented Maira Kalman talks about her life and work.

Audio

Rest Your Eyes
Let your ears carry the load for once by checking out this excerpt from the audiobook.

Images

Meet the Author
A photo of Daniel Handler playing the accordion with gusto which, to be honest, is the best way to play the accordion.

Meet the Illustrator
A portrait of Maira Kalman and her super cute pup.