This is the ninth review of my ‘Buzzfeed Recommend’ series in which I read and review all the books Buzzfeed recommended in their article: ’15 Brand-New Young Adult Novels That Are Just So, So, Good’. You can read the summary for that here.
‘When You Were Everything’ by Ashley Woodfolk is a YA contemporary novel, and the audiobook is narrated by Imani Parks. It currently has an average rating of 4.12 stars on Goodreads, and I have rated it five stars.
‘When You Were Everything’ follows Cleo as she realises her and Layla will never be best friends again. Everywhere Cleo goes she’s reminded of their bond, and now she wants to rewrite every memory that includes her ex best friend, but that won’t be easy as she’s assigned to become Layla’s English tutor. Despite her attempts to move on, and new friends that bring joy to her life, her past relationship with Layla continues to haunt her. Alternating between Then and Now, ‘When You Were Everything’ explores friendship, forgiveness and the promise of new beginnings.
“But girls cling to their friends for dear life as they wade through rough waters of learning who they are while everything around and inside them is changing minute by minute. And aren’t we all a little in love with our best friends?”
‘When You Were Everything’ is one of my favourite YA contemporary reads of all time. It manages to expertly cover the topic of friendship without ever feeling overbearing or spurning, and perfectly strikes the balance of presenting the realities of friendships whilst also praising them.
Whilst other topics are covered in this book, such as forgiveness (particularly self-forgiveness), friendship is truly the main focus. Woodfolk deftly covers the beginning and also the ending of friendships with enormous grace that pulls at the reader’s heartstrings, and will also make you believe in the beauty and miracle of these kind of relationships. This book covers the lessons of friendship a lot of us have to learn in very difficult ways, I certainly learnt these lessons at 18, and I wish I had had this book as a teenager to read instead; which I think is a glowing endorsment for a YA book.
I also found the exploration of the concept of people’s intentions and how we perceive them to be interesting. Woodfolk seemed to constantly push the reader’s notions on what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people look like in everyday scenarios, and appeared to want to make us, the readers, question our perceptions of how we can measure ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ in our world in the context of our relationships between people. It was an interesting discussion, and not one I was expecting.
Cleo, the protagonist of the book, is a great character to follow. She is distinct and has her own voice, and whilst she’s not always the character with the best intentions she is likeable. Cleo has clear flaws as a character, but she’s also has clear strengths and her voice is strong in the story, it’s emotive and inspiring, and I found her relatable even at the age of 21.
The plot of this is slow-paced, this is due to the fact it’s a contemporary novel and there are no great and epic plot points. However, I found myself eagerly listening to more of this book just to learn what would happen next, or what had already happened in certain flashbacks. The writing style meant I often didn’t notice the slow-pace of the novel, and Woodfolk’s use of language also meant I was regularly too tied up in emotions to care, and I’m unashamed to say this did make me grasp and tear up at times.
Whilst I listened to this rather than read it, and enjoyed the audiobook and narrator immensely, I’m sure I would have enjoyed this just as much if I had read it. However, I do recommend listening to this rather than reading it as the narrator, Imani Parks, adds some depth and emotion to Cleo’s voice that made the book even better.
If you’re a fan of YA contemporaries or coming of age novels, this is easily a book for you, and if those kind of books aren’t for you, this still could be for you. This was such a fantastic read that I widely recommend it to anyone whose looking for a book that focuses on friendships. I will be talking about this book for a long time, and I will also be reading more from Woodfolk in the future.
So far this is the only book in my ‘Buzzfeed Recommends‘ series I’ve given five stars, and I’m scared it may be the only one to achieve that, as I’m not sure how anyone else is going to live up to this book. This was a fantastic book that tackled the formation and breakup of friendships, forgiveness and love, and it was exactly the kind of book I wish I had got to read when I was seventeen – I could have learnt a lot from it.
The ultimate focus of this book was the concept of friendships. Woodfolk masterfully explored what friendships mean and can do, especially to teenage girls, and how they are not always built to last. It’s a difficult lesson to learn: friendships come and go in your life, but this book somehow manages to find some kind of peace and beauty within the topic, that I’m sure countless readers will also find some form of peace in.
However, this wasn’t the only topic Woodfolk explored in depth, and I also enjoyed the conversations on the concept of forgiveness and morality. Forgiveness is rarely covered well in books as authors often fail to explore the complexities of it, by either making one character too “nice” or too “nasty” – they either appear completely blameless or unforgivable. Neither Layla or Cleo are portrayed like this, as the two characters are portrayed as young, confused, hurt and frustrated people who said the wrong things when lashing out because they hadn’t learnt how else to manage their feelings yet, neither one is the good guy or the bad guy, they’re both just people; this extended beyond the two characters and into other minor characters such as Cleo’s dad and his actions.
This take on morality was refreshing and ensured Woodfolk was able to fully explore how forgiveness works, especially when comparing self-forgiveness and forgiveness from others. It also meant the reader and Cleo were able to find some peace in the main conflict of the novel, by showcasing that both Layla and Cleo had forgiven themselves and each other.
As well as writing great commentary Woodfolk also created intriguing characters. Cleo, our protagonist, is a great character. Whilst she’s a sympathetic figure, she’s also flawed and does say and do things that are malicious and cruel at times. For a teenager she also feels remarkable relatable, perhaps because she is such a well rounded character with believable interests and flaws to her that many adults (as well as teenagers) can possess. I really liked her, and the growth she experienced throughout the book where she came to accept that no one, including herself, was completely good or blameless.
Other characters such as Cleo’s newfound friends and her romantic love interest, Dom, were also captivating. Each felt distinct from the other and no secondary character felt the same, they all clearly had their own struggles and strengths, as well as interests and dislikes. Such a well-rounded group ensured the book was always fun to listen to, and I found myself often smiling along as Cleo and her friends talked.
The writing was easy to follow yet also emotive, and whilst nothing ever felt like it dragged Woodfolk also didn’t rush through emotional scenes, she expertly ensured the reader felt it all without ever feeling like it was pushed on them. It is important to note there a lot of Shakespeare references in this, as it didn’t escape my notice that a lot of the plays Cleo mentioned could be seen as symbolism or relating to the plot. I particularly liked the mentions of how fate is viewed in Macbeth and how that was related to Cleo grappling with the idea that all friendships are fated to end at some point, as well as the commentary on Iago in Othello surrounding betrayal. I thought it was a great edition to the story and added something special to the narrative.
In addition to all of this, I thought the narrator for this book was fantastic. Imani Parks’ narration was easy to listen to and I loved having her voice on in the background whilst I went about my day, there was something very comforting about it. I hope to find more books she’s narrated now.
The only possible criticism I could levy at this story is that I thought it focused too heavily on the romantic relationship between Cleo and Dom at times, although it was so well built up by Woodfolk I found I didn’t mind it so much, it felt almost natural for Cleo to turn to him.
Overall, this was nothing short of fantastic. The book made me emotional, and whilst none of the conflicts presented in this book had an easy solutions, there was a presence of hope at the end which made even more brilliant. I’m certainly going to be looking out for more of Woodfolk’s work from now on and I can’t recommend you enough to do the same.
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