I can forget about her for hours or even whole days, and then the truth rushes back like a brush fire, burning me from the inside out. The person you loved? They’re gone.– When You Were Everything
Summary and Thoughts
It’s been twenty-seven days since Cleo and Layla’s friendship imploded.
Nearly a month since Cleo realized they’ll never be besties again.
Now, Cleo wants to erase every memory, good or bad, that tethers her to her ex–best friend. But pretending Layla doesn’t exist isn’t as easy as Cleo hoped, especially after she’s assigned to be Layla’s tutor. Despite budding new friendships with other classmates—and a raging crush on a gorgeous boy named Dom—Cleo’s turbulent past with Layla comes back to haunt them both.
Alternating between time lines of Then and Now, When You Were Everything blends past and present into an emotional story about the beauty of self-forgiveness, the promise of new beginnings, and the courage it takes to remain open to love.
I’ve heard so many wonderful things about Woodfolk’s Contemporary YA novel, When You Were Everything, specifically regarding its focus on a friendship break-up. Losing a friendship is such a gut-wrenching experience and I’m so happy for this topic to be given its proper focus. Woodfolk’s writing is clear and easy to consume. Despite this book being nearly 400 pages long, I read it within two days (and two sittings). I loved how Woodfolk examined multiple avenues of loss and change through the sifting relationship between Cleo’s parents, her friendship with Layla, her future summer aspirations, and the sense of melancholy woven throughout this all. The novel is also structured skillfully, alternating between “Then” and “Now” sections of Cleo’s life, building up to a bittersweet, emotionally honest ending. For these reasons, despite the fact that this book was not perfect for me, I can understand the praise Woodfolk has received for her work. She succeeds on a variety of thematic and technical levels and I can easily see why so many reviewers have given her five stars.
Where I struggle though, is that the reasoning behind Cleo and Layla’s friendship breakup is over-the-top dramatic. I expected more of a slow decay in the relationship, not an extreme blow-out. While this was saddening and exciting to read, it wasn’t necessarily relatable. The feelings the characters feel? Relatable. The actual events that occur? Less so. I understand the necessity of writing an engaging book with twists and turns, but some of the actions characters took felt excessive, and with this, some of the characters themselves fell a bit flat in their characterization as a result. Throughout this story of friendship, there is also a light romance blossoming between Cleo and her new classmate, Dom. While I enjoyed Dom as a character and found the romance to compliment (rather than overtake) the friendship plot line, I was disappointed in the way he was introduced. So many aspects of this novel are meticulously curated and placed, so to see Dom introduced as the “mysterious new kid who is immediately obsessed with the main character” guy seemed derivative and sloppy. Noting how their relationship progresses as Layla and Cleo’s friendship collapses, I felt as though Woodfolk lost a real opportunity to slowly build up the romance in parallel. By the end of the book, while I was happy to see Cleo move on and initiate a relationship with Dom, I wasn’t necessarily convinced of their love for each other.
Finally, there is A LOT of Shakespeare references in this book. Yes, it’s realistic for high school students to be studying Shakespeare in Literature class, but I felt like Woodfolk was being a bit too heavy-handed in her constant references. Whatever wisdom, depth, or nuance these constant tidbits were intended to provide just felt forced and cheesy to me.
All in all, while I enjoyed When You Were Everything, there were definitely some aspects of the novel that worked better than others, so it’s not a personal favorite. Still, if you’re interested in reading a Contemporary YA Novel that focuses on friendship, this isn’t a bad place to start, and perhaps you may get more out of it than I did.
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