Why We Broke Up

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler

Powell’s Books

publication date: 2011
pages: 368
ISBN-10: 0316127256
ISBN-13: 978-0316127257

Why We Broke Up is enjoyable not because of its plot, which is a standard “young-girl-meets-young-boy-and-hearts-are-broken” storyline, but because of its concept, theme, and characters. It is these things that give the book life and interest.

In Why We Broke Up, Min Green, a junior in high school who aspires to be a film director, is writing a letter to her ex-boyfriend Ed Slaterton, a jocky, popular senior. The letter is a chronicle of their relationship. This concept allows Handler to use both first- and second-person narrative. The use of these narratives effectively transported me into the middle of Min and Ed’s story. For example, I felt it when Min, in a fit of jealousy, danced with her ex-boyfriend in front of Ed. As I was reading that scene, I had to put the book down. I was so embarrassed for everyone involved. Handler’s use of first- and second-person made scenes like that deeply vivid and evocative.

Also, as mentioned above, the book had an alluring theme. One of the themes of the book was the effect objects have on our mood and memory. As Min is writing her letter to Ed, she is sifting through a box of things she kept that reminded her of Ed and their relationship. Each time she examines a new object, a flood of memories surges into her mind. That is an accurate depiction of how I interact with objects. Even as I look around my living room, I am reminded. I see our PlayStation 3 and I think of the look on my boyfriend’s face when I gave it to him for his birthday. I see my collection of Animorphs books and I think of my fifth-grade best friend’s bedroom with all her horse posters. Min’s physical examination of the objects paralleled the emotional examination we all make when we are sorting through our past.

The third reason Why We Broke Up was a compelling read was the characters. Notwithstanding the Juno-esque, too-cool-for-school dialogue, the characters were very realistic. I felt like I knew an Ed, a Min, and an Al, Min’s “is he or isn’t he?” best friend. The realism of the characters made me interested in their stories and dramas.

However, as alluded to above, Why We Broke Up is not perfect. The dialogue is often cheesy and too-too. For example, Ed’s college-age sister Joan says this when Min offers to help her cook dinner: “All my life, Min, for eons I have waited for someone to ask that question. I hope you agree that aprons are useless, but here, take this.” and hands Min a rubber band for her hair. That sentence was clearly meant to impart so much: Joan is a young person who cooks – how quirky. She doesn’t like aprons – how fresh. She puts great emphasis on temporal words – how . . . cute? Unfortunately, much of the dialogue was that way.

Additionally, I wasn’t swept up in all Min’s emotions. I suppose its because its been almost a decade since high school, but I didn’t experience as a reader the vexations Min was feeling concerning losing her virginity, love triangles, and the boredom and woe that is adolescence. Although I couldn’t completely empathize with Min, I did reflect on my own life as I was reading, which is always a good exercise.

4/6: worth reading

Here are some more reviews of the book:

The Telegraph
USA Today

King Dork

King Dork by Frank Portman

Powell’s Books

publication date: 2006
pages: 344
ISBN-13: 978-0385734509

I have to admit: my opinion of this book changed after I realized it was written by Dr. Frank of the Mr. T. Experience. Issues I’d had with the book, such as esoteric music and book references and a juvenile perception of young women, dwindled with the realization: oh, the author thinks he is a rockstar. I’m not proud of that fact, but I did forgive the book for some of its transgressions.

Not that the book needed much forgiveness. I found it funny and compelling before I knew about its author.  King Dork follows Tom Henderson through his sophomore year of high school at Hillmont High in California. At heart, the book is a coming-of-age story, although Portman takes great pains to convince his reader otherwise. Tom spends the book expanding his horizons beyond his imaginary bands to, among other things, his dead father’s past, girls’ mouths, live shows, and sexy parties.

There were several comedic gems sprinkled throughout the book and I laughed out loud many times. Most of the book’s wit stemmed from wry observations about being an American teen. For example, Tom and his bandmate, Sam Hellerman, are discussing the meaning of Christian rock music and Sam thinks he might understand it: it’s like “You have a crush on Jesus. But Jesus doesn’t know you exist.” At another point, Tom is complaining about a book he is reading, The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley, and J.D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Tom opines that if Holden Caulfield read Doors of Perception “he’d say something like ‘Gee, Wally, that’s swell and junk, but I feel all crumby on account of how it’s so phony and all.’” Nothing like a pretentious literature joke to get this reader chuckling.

In fact, the book spends an inordinate amount of time lambasting The Catcher in the Rye. Portman either really despises that book or is straining to seem hip and irreverent to his young audience. I’m putting my money on the latter. There are other examples in the book of Portman trying to connect, or something, with guys between the ages of 12 and 16. The first page alone mentions naked people, teen sex, weird sex, drugs, blood, guitars, girls, a blow job, and rock and roll. Also, as mentioned earlier, the book does not treat young women in a realistic or positive way. These attempts at irreverence are bewildering at best and painful at worst.

Another weakness of King Dork is its constant foreshadowing. This is something I see a lot in YA fiction (The Book Thief, for example). Guess what, YA authors: foreshadowing is not effective. Instead, any plot climax is prostrate because of your constant hints that “Yes, something is going to happen. And yes, it will blow your mind.” Rarely will a foreshadowed plot development live up to an author’s earlier descriptions of it.

If I knew any boys in high school, I don’t know if I would recommend King Dork to them. The book contained too many unrealistic blow jobs. However, I would recommend this book to those of us who survived high school and periodically enjoy some funny YA fiction that doesn’t try to jam a message about uniqueness or being ourselves down our throat.

4/6: worth reading

Here are some other reviews of the book:

What was I reading?