Handler’s mediocre new novel disappoints

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The celebrated children’s author Daniel Handler, who is based in San Francisco, wrote “A Series of Unfortunate Events” under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket. But for his latest book, “Why We Broke Up,” he uses his real name. It’s too bad that Handler’s real name is as much of a disappointment as his book.  It truly must have been a series of unfortunate events that led him to write it.

“Why We Broke Up” is the story of a skewed high school romance between a dense basketball player, Ed Slaterton, and a bantering movie buff, Min Green.  It takes the form of a long letter from Min to Ed explaining why they broke up.  Indeed, the names of the characters already hint at the cheesy pit of cliche, high-school-student love into which the reader will be thrown and won’t be able to come out of alive.  A warning: Your tolerance for the mundane will be severely tested as you read this book, just like Min and Ed’s relationship.

The story begins with Min’s decision to return to Ed a box full of knickknacks — movie tickets, bottle caps, matchboxes — that she had collected throughout the course of their relationship.  There are stories behind each item in the box, and Min goes through a sort of psychological healing process as she tells these stories.  But rather than healing the reader, the stories cause acute suffering.

Part of what makes the book so unbearable is the writing.  First impressions are difficult to discount, and on the very first page, Min says, “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 that I goddamn loved you so much.” The small problem here is that Min’s voice is not particularly insightful, or intelligent, or even interesting.  However, it is believable.  Handler has taken care to construct his characters so that they seem realistic, even if they aren’t riveting.

“Why We Broke Up” is a book that should be judged by its cover.  It is a seashell, beautiful on the outside but hollow on the inside.  Embedded with illustrations by the artist Maira Kalman, its glossy pages shine with whimsical colors and painted trinkets.  Kalman illustrated each one of the items in the box that Min returns to Ed, planting seeds of visual context as the story unfolds, setting the tone and texture of the book and making it slightly more bearable. They are imaginative, dreamy treasures reserved as rewards for the patient reader who manages to slog through the book.  It may have been better to simply leave out the words, since a book exclusively of illustrations would have sufficed to tell the story.

A website has been set up in association with the book where the woebegone unrequited lover can post stories, both pithy and pathetic, of past heartbreaks.  Like coins dropped wistfully into a fountain each anecdote comes from a different hand, yet still embodies the common currency of broken hearts. The website features an entertaining but embarrassing video of a frolicking Handler assaulting passers-by at Grand Central Station with questions about their past breakups. He tries so hard to be funny that he actually is.

These days, when there is much to read and reread, when time ticks quickly by — it’s difficult to justify reading a book about a nerd who falls for a jock and for whom it takes 300 pages to realize what a barely attentive reader can predict right at the beginning — that it’s not going to work.  No one desires mediocrity, not even in  pleasure reading.