Technically, Daniel Handler wrote this novel, but in the world of the story, the author of what we're reading is Min. (Remember: The text is a letter she's writing to Ed.) Breakups bring up a lot of feelings, so Min's on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster—and before she gets to the scene of the breakup itself, much of what Min writes about is the good part of the relationship. She's recalling the happy times from a place of deep anger, though, so tonally, the book is all over the place. She's happy, she's sad, she's in love, she's furious; she misses Ed, though she knows that she shouldn't.
As she writes, Min tracks how she felt (past tense), how she feels now, and how there's still some overlap between the two. In doing so, she paints a pretty complete picture of her experience of being with Ed.
The breathless romantic quality of describing her first love is balanced by Min's critical faculties, which she directs mostly toward Ed, acknowledging his good qualities (hotness, mostly) and terrible faults. She does the same for herself, noting her own failures as a friend (to Al and Lauren) and to herself (for ignoring the signs that something was wrong). It's a pretty earnest approach she brings to the whole assessment process.
Still, toward the end of the letter, there is a leveling off—her tone becomes less angry, romantic, and wistful as she starts to look toward the future. Consider the next-to-last chapter, which is only two sentences: "Give this back to your sister. I'm done" (42.1). After hundreds of pages of emotional purging, Min seems ready to let go.
Why We Broke Up is a horse of a different color, meaning it can't be easily categorized. You could make a convincing case for calling it a comedy or a tragedy, which means that it's neither—or both. If the book were a TV show, we'd call it a dramedy. On one hand, it's funny, and it ends on a hopeful note, but on the other, its narrator is angry and heartbroken, and we know from the start that the relationship she describes is doomed to crash and burn.
Since the subject of Why We Broke Up is young love, it's recognizable as young adult (YA) literature. But it doesn't adhere to many YA conventions: All the drama is in the breakup itself, instead of some external crisis like, say, cancer, or being thrown in a murder arena. Still, though, you'd be hard-pressed to find a teen who can't relate to at least some component of this book.
The title of Why We Broke Up is pretty self-explanatory. The whole book is Min processing what went wrong between her and her ex-boyfriend, Ed Slaterton—you know, explaining why they broke up.
As a love story, it's backward insofar as the beginning is the end, so to speak. From the first page, we get that Min's telling the story from the vantage point of five weeks post-breakup. "It's December now, and the sky is bright, and it's clear to me," she writes. "I'm telling you why we broke up, Ed. I'm writing it in this letter, the whole truth of why it happened. And the truth is I goddamn loved you so much" (1.2). Instead of waiting to see whether they get together, then, in this book, we're waiting to see why they broke up. And Min delivers in spades.
Why We Broke Up ends on a tentatively hopeful note. Finally, Min finishes her letter and seems ready to dump her huge box of Ed memorabilia. It's December, and she and Al are making plans for an elegant New Year's supper—they're going to wrap prosciutto around some jarred chestnuts that Min originally bought for Ed, but never used. The chestnuts are gross, but according to Al, "Wrapping something in prosciutto cancels out from a jar. Wrapping in prosciutto cancels out anything" (43.8). Maybe even Ed himself.
New Year's, of course, is a time that symbolizes new beginnings, and Min seems open to exploring them with Al. In the final paragraph, she talks about "the love interest [who] sneaks up on you, several scenes before you even know for sure he's in the story" (43.10). Is she talking about Al? Min doesn't say for sure, but Shmoop thinks that she might be. As one door closes, another one opens… maybe. If nothing else, we're confident their dinner will be delicious. We want to eat everything Al makes.
The where and when of all the action in Why We Broke Up is vague, giving the book a universal quality. The geographical location is never explicitly named, though certain details (like the existence of public transportation and two arty movie theaters) suggest that the story unfolds somewhere in the urban United States. The majority of the locations in the book, though—Hellman High School, people's houses, and a variety of coffee shops—are fairly generic. A sprinkling of more offbeat locales (like the fancy Russian restaurant and the Blue Rhino club) add color without giving us any clues to the setting's GPS coordinates.
Similarly, it's impossible to pinpoint exactly when the book takes place. We know that Min and Ed dated from October 5 to November 12, and that the text itself is a letter that Min writes on a sunny day in December, several weeks after the breakup. But while the book feels contemporary, and Min mentions it's the 21st century (16.62), the year is never specified.
The text is chock full of pop culture references—mostly for films—all of them are fake, so they're not tied to our calendar in the real world (see "Allusions" for the full rundown). Min seems to live in an alternate universe that's very similar to our own, which gives the book a highly relatable quality.
Why We Broke Up is an emotionally sophisticated work, but it's easy enough to follow the plot. (A couple meets; they fall in love; they break up. See? Simple.) But the book is written from Min's point of view, and her stylistic quirks sometimes slow things down. Occasionally Min gets so carried away with a description that she'll bust out a stream-of-consciousness style sentence long enough to rival Marcel Proust. But don't worry: Since the language is contemporary, it's never too much of a slog.
Much like the Magnetic Fields, a band he sometimes performs with, Daniel Handler has a sensibility that's a little gothic, but also playful and clever. His specialty is balancing pathos with humor. As it turns out, this is the perfect combo for delving into the treacherous territory that is young love, which is so dramatic that it can skew schmaltzy when an author's not careful. Handler's particular brand of dramatic wit comes through most vividly in the conversations Min has with her friends. Consider this one:
"So boring," Jordan said, "my eyes are rolled into the back of my head. They are glass replicas, Min, placed in the gaping bored holes in my skull."
"Nor did you have to swear, as Lauren did, to hold Jean Sabinger's hand through six drafts of the poster as each of the decorations subcommittee submitted their comments, two of which made her cry, because Jean and I still can't talk after the Freshman Dance Incident."
"It's true, the crying," Lauren said. "I have personally wiped her nose."
"Not true," I said.
"Well, it's true she cried. And Jean Sabinger is a crier. It's these artistic temperaments, Min." (11.17 – 11.21)
In the writing, there's a real sense of playfulness, which is mirrored in the book's unique structure. The text is a letter that's broken down into chunks, with each chunk organized around an object that represents an episode in Min and Ed's relationship. The illustrations of these everyday items (like a dish towel and a coin) are playful, too—painted in a way that makes them seem almost magical, which they were (at least at one time) to Min. "Everyone's eccentric," Maira Kalman, the illustrator, once said. "You just have to find it." In Why We Broke Up, she applies the same philosophy to inanimate objects.
Min's breakup box contains a seemingly endless array of objects that she collected over the course of her relationship with Ed. Min says it includes:
[…] every last souvenir of the love we had, the prizes and debris of this relationship, like the glitter in the gutter when the parade has passed, all the everything and whatnot kicked to the curb. (2.1)
These items are nothing special in and of themselves, but Min has imbued them with special meaning. Over the course of the book, she examines each one, and shares an associated memory, letting them go as she does. "How utterly incorrect to think […] a box of crap is treasures" (40.93), Min writes, nearing the end of her letter. The box has slowly been drained of its meaning, and now she's ready to get rid of it and move on.
Okay, so the box is obviously pretty connected on a symbolic level to Min and Ed's relationship. More than that, though, it reflects Min's experience of the relationship—the box isn't something they shared, it's something Min made to hold treasured reminders of their times together. Its contents, then, reflect the moments that mattered most to Min. And when she's ready to part with the box, it isn't just that it is no longer meaningful to her; she's ready not to hold onto Ed emotionally any longer, too.
To explore some of the more significant items from the breakup box, be sure to keep reading through this section.
While all the items in the breakup box symbolize some experience shared by Ed and Min, some of them have special import. Chief among these symbols is a set of keys, which are originally part of Min's Halloween costume. Ed and Min have a couple's costume of sorts (he's a prisoner and she's the warden), and Min plans to give him the keys at the end of the night. She doesn't mean anything in particular by this gesture (at least not consciously), but when Min tells her mom about her intention to hand over the keys, Min's mom sees the writing on the wall:
My mom's eyes widened.
"You're going to give Ed those keys?"
"What? It's my money."
"But Min, honey," she said, and put her hand on me…. "Isn't that a little, you know?"
"Symbolic?" (29.26 – 29.32)
Min plays dumb, but in the next chapter she's tells Ed, "I want to give you my keys" (30.5), by which she totally means her virginity. Long story short: Min's mom is totally right.
The egg cuber is another symbolic item in the breakup box. As its name suggests, this kitchen gadget makes a square egg. Its function? To force something eggs into a shape they're never naturally in—kind of like Min and Ed when it comes to dating each other. Min's an artsy kid, Ed's a jock, and according to the social laws of high school, these two don't really mix. And in the end, of course, no matter how Min tries to rearrange her life to make it fit with Ed's, it just doesn't; she can't stop him from cheating on her.
Ed buys seven egg cubers to make an elaborate recipe—"Greta's Cubed-Egg Igloo," to be precise—which shows him trying to meet Min where she is. Is he the sort to throw a birthday party for an old timey actress? Nope. But he humors Min, going all in on the party planning, as evidenced by his egg cuber purchase. No matter, though, because like we said: Eggs aren't supposed to be cubes, and Min and Ed aren't fated to be with each other.
Lottie Carson is a film star that Min likes. After her first date with Ed, Min sees an old woman and decides, apropos of nothing, that she must be Lottie Carson. She is not. The real Lottie is dead, but Min doesn't know that, and in her oblivion, Min concocts a fanciful plan to throw "Lottie Carson" a big birthday bash.
This party, like Ed and Min's relationship, is doomed from the start. Adding to the parallels, Min finds out about Lottie's death at the same time she's informed of Ed's treachery: "She died a long time ago, is the real truth of what slayed me in my chest and head and hands forever" Min writes. "There are no stars in my life" (40.93). It is a major loss of faith moment for Min—one of her favorite old timey starlets is dead, and so, too, is her relationship with Ed. With this, Min enters a period of darkness. If you wanted to be all metaphoric about it, you might even say she sinks into a starless night.
Why We Broke Up shows us the world through the eyes of narrator Min Green, a teenager who's dealing with the fallout from her relationship with one Ed Slaterton. Actually, it shows us the world through her words: The text itself is an epistolary novel—a letter that Min's writing to Ed to explain (as well as better understand for herself) what the heck happened between them.
To do so, Min walks Ed through the stories behind a box of souvenirs from their time together. One by one, she excavates movie tickets, love notes, and other memorabilia, writing about what they once meant to her, and what they mean to her now. When she's finished, she plans to dump the whole shebang (a.k.a. the letter and the mementos) at Ed's door as a form of closure.
In novels, first-person narrators often create a sense of intimacy, and in this case the "Dear Ed" (1.1) device makes Min's thoughts and feelings seem all the more vibrant and real. Min's perspective is further fleshed out by Maira Kalman's illustrations, which depict each item in the breakup box. As these objects appear one at a time—in a bright color palette, which is pretty and feverish—helps us see how each everyday object was transformed into an artifact that's important, and even magical, to Min.
If Why We Broke Up were a classic love story, it would begin with boy meets girl. It isn't a classic love story, though, so instead, we sort of start at the end: We know Min and Ed break up before we even see them get together. To determine why, Min will sort through the detritus of their relationship throughout the rest of the book.
Most of the book flashes back to Min and Ed's five-week relationship. They fall in love quickly and their relationship is intense, but at the same time, there is always an air of uncertainty. Min feels insecure in her role as Ed's girlfriend, and vaguely suspicious due to a weird vibe she picks up from Joan, Ed's sister. Min also struggles with whether or not she wants to lose her virginity with Ed.
Before we opened the book, we knew Ed and Min had broken up. But it's not until close to the end that we finally learn why: Ed has been cheating on Min with his ex-girlfriend, Annette. Ugh. Min dumps him as soon as she finds out. The climatic scene takes place in a flower shop, and at one point Min asks Ed, "Did you dump me for another girl and I didn't even know it?" (40.81) He doesn't answer, but yeah, pretty much.
Again, Why We Broke Up is not traditionally structured—and this is particularly true when it comes to the falling action. Instead of the falling action taking place after the climax, it actually fills most of the book. Chronologically, it happens after the climax, just like it's supposed to; we read it before we reach the climax, though.
The first chapter tells us that the text is an epistolary novel, which means it's written as a letter. Min's writing to Ed on a day in December, a month or so after their breakup. The letter inventories a box of mementos from their relationship that Min considers one by one. Each chapter focuses on one memento, and through these items we learn their love story.
Breakups can be emotionally messy, and over the course of the book we see Min deal with all the conflicting emotions her breakup inspires, including love, hate, sadness, and anger. But Min seems to find catharsis, or emotional release, in writing the letter to Ed. As she concludes the letter, she seems hopeful as she contemplates a future without him. Min's not quite happy—yet—but she's definitely getting there.
One of Min's defining traits is her love for old movies. She's constantly referencing plots and actors to help make sense of the world around her. What's most interesting about these shout-outs, though, is that none of the source material is real. Daniel Handler made up the details of all of them, which probably number in the dozens.
Take Feast of Starlings, for example, where a woman is "hunched over the stone oven while her blinded son plays that racing angry piece on the cello over and over" (43.10). Another touchstone for Min is Hawk Davies, a jazz musician who isn't real, either. Min writes one of his lyrics on the lid of her breakup box and "[she] can feel Hawk Davies flowing through every word [she] write[s]" (3.1).
Handler explained why he chose to make up these details instead of using real references in an interview. "The trouble with using real movies—or real anything—is that the reader brings their own baggage," he said. "If you say, 'The evening was like Breakfast At Tiffany's,' some people will think that means hopelessly elegant and some people will think it means overlong, with a racist caricature. If you make up a movie, then it means only what you intend it to mean."
Another effect of referencing fake movies is that the text has a timeless quality. To read more about this how this phenomenon works, click on over to "Setting."