When We Were Them by Laura Taylor Namey
Published: November 16th 2021 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Rating: ★★★★★ (5)
Genre: Young Adult // Contemporary, Coming-Of-Age
Quick Thoughts: A poignant and diverse story of friendship, death and the fragility of growing up
About The Book: When they were fifteen, Willa, Luz, and Britton had a friendship that was everything.
When they were sixteen, they stood by one another no matter what.
When they were seventeen, they went through the worst.
And when they were eighteen, Willa ruined it all.
Now, the week of graduation, Willa is left with only a memory box filled with symbols of the friendship she has nearly destroyed: A book of pranks. Corsages from a nightmarish homecoming. A greasy pizza menu. Greeting cards with words that mean the world… It’s enough to make Willa wonder how anything could tear her, Luz, and Britton apart. But as Willa revisits the moments when she and her friends leaned on one another, she can’t avoid the moments they leaned so hard, their friendship began to crack.
As Willa tries to find a way back to Luz and Britton, she must confront the why of her betrayal and answer a question she never saw coming: Who is she, without them?
I’ve been watching Laura’s books with an eager eye for so long. Despite owning A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow, I have yet to read it. And then When We Were Them came along and (because I’m a sucker for friendship novels) suddenly it jumped the queue. I wasn’t sure just what I was truly getting myself in for until I’d cracked it open.
Willa, Luz and Britton have been best friends for so long that they have each other’s wants and needs clued-up with just a look. It’s the kind of friendship that’s innocent and sweet, the kind all people want when they’re fifteen, a tight-knit group that’s there whenever trouble is near, someone to tell your secrets, fears and passions to. That’s what they are for each other, through and through. Main character Willa begins the novel with a peak at after – she’s hurt her friends, betrayed them in some way. We don’t know what it is just yet, because to tell us how and why it happened, we have to go back to the beginning, and that’s just what happens.
Through fifteen to eighteen – where we’ll end back up – Willa tells the tale of highs and lows. Of family trauma, her own fears for her mother, of her secret feelings for Luz’s older brother Nico (I loved their bond in particular – it was *chefs kiss*) We learn of Britton’s dream to be an opera singer in Paris, and about how she carries herself with grace and beauty. And get to know Luz, a passionate girl with the dream of med school, keeping a watchful eye – as the sort of guardian – over her friends and family. But throughout the chapters, we see the characters burst out of their shells, growing far beyond the fifteen year olds they began as. All except Willa, too struck by change and the desire to keep things the same that she can’t fathom a life without her friends after graduation, taking to drastic steps to keep them this way.
Overall, When We Were Them exceeded my expectations in ways that I can’t put into words. After I turned that final page, I bawled (I never do that.) I think I’ve always needed this book – I think little-me needed this book after growing apart from my friends after school. It broke my heart in a beautiful way. I clutched the pages throughout first kisses, second chances and heart wrenching loss (because who didn’t at that curveball) and especially in that last chapter. Oh, how I wish I could just keep this book all to myself, selfishly. But truly, this is a poignant and diverse story of friendship, death and the fragility of growing up. I can’t tell you just how incredible this novel is. Not sure how anything will top this. Thank you for making me feel, Laura. Five stars completely – read it, read it, read it.
Laura Taylor Namey is the New York Times bestselling author of Reese’s Book Club pick A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow, The Library of Lost Things, and When We Were Them. A proud Cuban-American, she can be found hunting for vintage treasures and wishing she was in London or Paris. She lives in San Diego with her husband and two children. This former teacher writes young adult novels featuring quirky teens learning to navigate life and love. She holds a BA in Elementary Education from the University of San Diego and is the winner of the Peggy Miller Award for excellence in young adult fiction.