I have been desperate for stories and narratives that have nothing to do with pandemics, so that’s part of the reason it took me less than a week to tear through this sophomore effort by Ashley Woodfolk. The other part is that it is really, really good and it’s a topic that is almost never raised in literature, which is sad — the topic of friendship break ups.
The story at the center of When You Were Everything is essentially this: Cleo and Layla have been friends for a long time. Layla has a speech impediment (she stutters) and Cleo is, for the duration of their friendship, generally encouraging and supportive of Layla being brave enough to tackle things like school musicals and other environments where she knows her friend can shine, impediment be damned. But then, things start to shift. Layla needs Cleo a little less when she encounters the Chorus Girls, a group of musical nerds at their high school. The adults start acting weird too, and suddenly, Cleo’s parents are separating and her father, a librarian, transfers to a different school. There’s a hot guy named Dominic Grey — yes, even his name is hot — who mostly distracts Cleo from all the chaos, but romantic love is not a salve for losing your best friend to a bunch of snotty choir brats. At least, it’s not always; not at first.
So I won’t give away much more of what happens in the book, but I had so many emotions and feelings almost from the opening pages. ( I say a little bit more on my book tube channel, so you can listen to me go on about my feelings here, if you’d like.) First, like most people, I have plenty of ex-friends who come to mind immediately. Female friendship is one of those intimacies and sisterhoods that can feel even deeper than any romantic bond because of how sacred and sweet it can feel when it’s good. The emotional wreckage, though, feels arguably worse than any romantic break up, too, because weirdly, it feels like you can always replace a romantic partner but a friend of your soul and spirit? A little, tiny bit harder to do, no?
Woodfolk puts this well in the book, when Cleo tries to describe what happened with her and Layla: “The hurt feels so much like when my parents decided they didn’t love each other anymore that I can feel a shift in my breathing. ‘We…broke up.’
Dom snorts. ‘It’s not like it was a relationship,’ he says, and I frown, annoyed at his reaction. Perhaps he doesn’t know how it feels…to break in this particular way. Or perhaps it’s different for boys? But girls cling to their friends for dear life as they wade through the 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 bit in love with our best friends?”
One of my first published essays was in an anthology called “Secrets and Confidences: The Uncomplicated Truth About Women’s Friendships,” published by Seal Press in 2004. It was about the shifting, challenging dynamics of a middle school best friend who, sadly, did not remain my best friend for too long into adulthood. At the heart of parsing out the whys and the hows of a deeply intimate and close friendship ending was the core of what makes When You Were Everything so beautiful and helpful to have, particularly for young adult readers: We all change and grow. Sometimes the people we love the most change and grow in different ways, or they don’t at all, and that’s somehow more heartbreaking. Our culture of loose ties has made it seem like the norm to stay “friends” with people from your past indefinitely by giving them and everyone else unilateral access to the performance of our lives and happiness online. But the truth is, sometimes it’s the healthiest thing for a friendship to have its season in our lives and be over. You might shed some tears over that sentiment and certainly while reading this book, but it’s good for the soul, I promise — on both counts.