Buy When You Were Everything
Special price: $13.35 Regular price: $20.14
Publisher: Delacorte Press / Listening Library
Format: Hardcover / eBook / Audiobook
Narrator: Imani Parks
Reviewer: Melissa on August 20, 2020
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
I don’t quite remember how I heard about When You Were Everything by Ashley Woodfolk for the first time.
I know that I saw it listed on Afoma Umesi’s list of “45 Black Young Adult Novels,” and I also know that it was one of the books listed on Goodreads’ “96 Books Sharing the Joy, Love, and Adventures of Black Lives,” which was also on my radar this summer. However, I’m not sure when I decided to add it to my requests on the Libby app from the Toronto Public Library. Still, somehow, the audiobook narrated by Imani Parks, ended up on my list of library requests and when I wanted to go on a long walk, it was the audiobook that I quickly downloaded before I headed out. But whatever sequence events took place to take me from noticing it to deciding to request it, I’m so glad I read it.
When You Were Everything is a YA novel about a best friendship between Cleo and Layla that implodes over a period of a couple of months. By switching back and forth between two timelines—Then and Now—Ashley Woodfolk slowly draws readers along on this journey where, initially, we don’t exactly know what happened between the two friends 27 days ago to make Cleo realize that they’ll never be besties again. However, the suspense and tension that the author creates, even though it isn’t a thriller, will keep you turning pages (or listening as the case may be). Slowly, the reader comes to understand what each of these friends did to one another and what Layla allowed her friends to do to Cleo in a way that makes it easier to sympathize with the main character than might be the case if the story was laid out in a linear fashion.
After everything that’s happened, Cleo comes up with a plan to erase every memory, good or bad, that tethers her to her ex-best friend. However, pretending Layla doesn’t exist isn’t as easy as Cleo imaged especially when she’s forced to tutor Layla for an essay on Macbeth for skipping a bunch of classes. Despite burgeoning friendships with other classmates—and a crush on a gorgeous boy named Dom—Cleo’s turbulent past with Layla comes back to haunt them both. When You Were Everything is an emotional story about the beauty of self-forgiveness, the promise of new beginnings, and the courage it takes to remain open to love.
Since I didn’t read the physical version of the novel, I can’t say for sure whether it was solely the events of the novel or the inflection of Imani Parks’ voice while she read Ashley Woodfolk’s words, but this book hit me in the feels repeatedly. While I haven’t read the Adam Silvera novel to which the publisher compared it, I completely understand why it was likened to Nina LaCour’s We Are Okay even though the protagonist isn’t queer. Both books are about a friendship that is altered when something comes between two girls. However, even though there are several moments that had me tearing up or crying outright and Cleo is a character who feels loss deeply, When You Were Everything was also more hopeful than I remember We Are Okay being.
First and foremost, I loved the author’s writing, and the narrator, in case you’re unfamiliar with Imani Parks, is a movie and Broadway actor who is best known for her role as Young Nala on the hit Broadway show, The Lion King. Also, and I think this is really important for a book with a strong, Black lead such as When We Were Everything, the narrator is also a Black woman. While I can’t speak to whether Ashley Woodfolk had to request this or the publisher made the decision to have the book read by a Black person, I do think that it was the right thing to do and means that you won’t pick up the audiobook only to find the story being white washed.
Cleo is a character who I really sympathized with throughout the novel. I really understood how she felt when her best friend suddenly doesn’t have as much time for her, and especially, when Layla’s loyalties start to shift to the point where she tells her new friend, Sloan, things that cause her to be viciously attacked. Moreover, Layla no longer protects Cleo from the constant bullying that the chorus girls throw her way. Even though Cleo said some pretty terrible things and didn’t apologize for them soon enough, I still sympathized with her, in part, because the way nonlinear way the story is told allowed me to come to know her for who she really is and how she really feels about what she did before the truth fully comes out. At the same time, it’s easy to understand why Cleo is afraid of being hurt by both Sydney and Dom because of her very recent experience with losing Layla as a friend. And because of this fear, it’s easy to understand why she might put up walls and try to push these new friends out of her life before she needs them even more than she already does.
Beyond the sympathy that Ashley Woodfolk develops for Cleo, there are a lot things that make Cleo stand out to me. First, while I know there are many teens who would do anything to get out of reading a Shakespearean play, possibly because they don’t understand the Elizabethan language, Cleo is not the teen. She has a well-worn copy of Othello that she keeps on her person at all times, and in the Then timeline, we learn that on the days when Layla starts sitting with the chorus girls at lunch instead of her, she sometimes takes it out to read. That is, when she isn’t doing research on the Globe Theatre and trying to come up with a list of day trips that she and Layla could take from London when, not if because she knows her application was incredible, she goes there for the Summer Scholars Program that her teacher recommends to her. The chorus girls may think her interest in Shakespeare is lame or pretentious, but as someone who was so excited to study Shakespeare’s plays in high school, I picked up a copy of one of his plays at a used bookstore in advance, I really understood and appreciated just how into Shakespeare Cleo was. Moreover, Cleo pretty much only listens to jazz music, especially the work of Billy Holiday and Louis Armstrong. While the chorus girls, again, think this makes her pretentious, according to Layla, it is a way for Cleo to feel connected to her grandmother who passed away when she was 12, and presumably, it was a way for the author to demonstrate that jazz music is a important connection for young, Black people, like Cleo, with Black creative icons. By contrast, most of the chorus girls kind of blended together to me, which was, I think part of the point.
Beyond the main character, I really appreciated (and I’m sure that other readers will, too) that Cleo and her family are neither the only marginalized characters in the Brooklyn neighbourhood where Cleo lives and goes to school, nor are they the lone Black characters in the book. Her ex-best friend, Layla, is a brown, Muslim girl, who doesn’t wear a hijab and has a stutter. Both her Muslim identity and the fact that she has a stutter play important roles in the book rather than represent a type of performative diversity. For example, she uses her religion and gender identity as lenses through which to interpret the play Macbeth for an essay with Cleo’s help. In addition, her stutter is an important detail about who she is, and the kind of challenges she will face. At the same time, it allows the author to build in some interesting details about people with a stutter, such as that they can sing beautifully without it, and to layer in some tension because although Layla is learning techniques to minimize her stutter when she needs to speak in front of an audience, she knows that there’s a chance they will fail her when she needs them most.
As for other Black characters, one of the chorus girls is, like Cleo, Black, but she straightens her hair while Cleo maintains her natural hair in braids. In addition, Dom and his family are all Black, and the restaurant his grandparents run, Dolly’s, is full of art that celebrates important, Black creatives, like Langston Hughes. To me, this showed that Cleo’s community is a safe space for her. In addition, there are other secondary characters, like Jace, and some of the teachers at school, like Mr. Yoon, who are Asian, and the new friendships Cleo builds with Sydney and Willa add some queer characters into the mix. In other words, if you’re looking for a Black romance with a diverse cast of characters, then When You Were Everything should definitely be on your radar.
When You Were Everything by Ashley Woodfolk is about a female friendship that implodes over the course of a few months in devastating ways and for equally devastating reasons, but at the same time, it will bring readers who are, like Cleo, Black, and those who aren’t Black, like me, a lot of joyful friendship and relationship vibes. I mean, I’m not saying that Dom and Cleo are my new OTP, but I’m not not saying that either. There is a lot more that I could say, but I want you to have the chance to experience the amazing joys and lowest lows of this book yourself. So, instead, I’ll just clearly state that it made an impact on me, and if you pick it up, it will make an impact on you, too.
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