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 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 read probably over a hundred books about romantic breakups, but only a small handful about friendship breakups. And it’s a damn shame, if you ask me. Some of the most messy, prolonged exits from my life have been from friends. There is something about the unspoken way that some endings are drawn out, and you can feel it happening, but can’t quite pinpoint how or why, and start questioning if you are just imagining it.
In When You Were Everything, Ashley Woodfolk illustrates every one of these painful moments of the friendship between Cleo, a Black teenage girl, and Layla, a Bengali teenage girl with a stutter. They met when they were 12 years old, and have stayed best friends… until they weren’t. The story alternates between “then” and “now” timelines, from Cleo’s point of view. Initially, Cleo begins to feel left out because Layla begins to spend more time with the girls who do musical theater with her, and grows more and more desperate to figure out how she can repair their friendship. They begin to grow further apart, and both girls do things that are vindictive and painful because they each feel hurt by respective occurrences. The reasoning behind how the fracture continues to widen is slowly revealed, and the gradual nature of the reveal reflects the anguish behind not truly knowing why or how they couldn’t just bounce back or come back from whatever was happening.
Another aspect of Cleo’s personal story is dealing with her parents’ separation while she already feels lonely from the loss of Layla’s presence. The sense of loneliness was particularly resonant as she tried to conceptualize her relationship with each parent individually, while learning to trust their love for her.
Cleo was also navigating trying to put herself out there to make new friends and pursue a cute guy at school simultaneously, and this had her spread her bandwidth for vulnerability extremely thin when she was already struggling to trust so much. While her friendship with Layla was fading away, both girls debated and tried to offer small tokens of effort, yet were met with anger, refusal, and sometimes vengeance. Each time, each of them became more hardened and less willing to forgive, and eventually completely closed off.
Layla is also navigating her self confidence, particularly having a stutter and being passionate about the performing arts. She deals with ableism surrounding her stutter, and we see how much effort and mental fortitude it takes to have a strong sense of self despite people doubting her. It is sometimes a struggle trying to determine who is really there for her and truly understands her experience, and again it is an exercise in trust and judgment, although in a different context than Cleo.
A lot of times, the friendships in novels are secondary to romantic relationships or even family relationships, and often come as an afterthought in reviews. However, as someone who personally does not have close family relationships and a rather uneventful romantic life (in a good way), my friendships over the years are where I have found myself expending the most effort, especially when I feel a shift in the dynamic, because those relationships are truly so valuable and I consider my close friends like family. It is a devastating feeling when efforts are not reciprocated because you feel that a friend’s attention and commitment is elsewhere, and it hurts when you feel deprioritized.
No one is a clear hero and villain – both girls make choices they regret and out of rage at feeling unseen and cast aside by the other. However, it is comforting to see each of them slowly coming to terms with moving forward with their lives without the other person. Coming back from friendship breakups is not unlike their romantic counterpart: the relearning how to trust, the mourning of the loss of the friend’s presence, and the emptiness felt when seeing things that are reminders of them. It all hurts. In the end, the resolution of the book left me feeling satisfied, although also slightly like my heart had been put through a blender. There is nothing quite like the pain of learning that the idea of a friendship you had in your head doesn’t quite match reality.
MY CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
I cannot recommend this book enough, and can guarantee that if you have ever experienced the loss of a close friend, you will feel seen.
“[…] there was an impossible distance between us, a tear in the fabric of who we were to each other, a displacement of what and where we used to be. Things would never be as they were again.”
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: Cleo and Layla, best friends since they were 12, are no longer speaking to one another and the book recaps the history of the dissolution of their friendship in alternating timelines.
Perfect for: If you’ve gone through a friendship breakup and wanted just the right words to capture the heartbreak of it all
Think twice if: You don’t want to be gotten right in the feels.
Genre: YA contemporary
Trigger/content warning: ableism, bullying, separation of parents