Friday, September 15, 2017

Book Review: When We Were Worthy

By Jami Deise

It happens nearly every year somewhere in this country, often around prom or graduation. A car filled with teenagers—usually drinking—slams into a tree, or a ditch, or another car. Many die, including some who were just unfortunate bystanders. The recriminations last for months, if not years, and go way beyond the driver. Who provided the alcohol? The car? Who is ultimately to blame?

The details are a little different in Marybeth Mayhew Whalen’s novel When We Were Worthy, but the aftermath is the same. In tiny Worthy, Georgia, three cheerleaders going to celebrate after a football game are mowed down by a classmate racing down a dirt road. As cheerleaders, the girls—Mary Claire, Brynne, and Keary—are high-school royalty. The boy who hit them didn’t even play sports. The battle lines are clearly drawn. But the real villains in this small town may not have been involved in the accident at all.

The story is told through the points-of-view of four characters: Darcy, whose son Graham was driving the car and who’d been mourning the death of her marriage to philandering Tommy; Leah, a cheerleader who should have been in the car with the three other girls and knows more than she’s saying; Ava, a substitute teacher who thought—wrongly—that her biggest secret was safe with Keary’s death; and Marglyn, Mary Claire’s mother, whose grief is compounded with guilt because she was helping out another teenage girl that night rather than watching Mary Claire cheer.

With all these voices—and all the characters related to them—I had trouble remembering which woman was starring in what story. Each chapter is named after a character, which was helpful because before going on to the next chapter, I’d focus on the name and remind myself of her situation. It was hard work to keep everyone straight.

That’s really my only quibble with the book, which started off strong and got better as the story progressed. The mystery that’s only hinted at in the opening pages becomes clearer, and the characters’ dilemmas more poignant by the middle of the book. Some characters who seem dubious are revealed to be innocent; characters who originally seemed minor turn out to be important. Leah, in particular, ends up being the heart of the book and the key to mystery.

While I was drawn to When We Were Worthy due to its plot, what moved me the most was the writer’s seamless segue into theme. This isn’t just a book about teenagers who do something stupid and the physical and emotional wreckage they leave behind. It’s about hope and forgiveness after the worst kinds of losses. By the end, I was reading with tears running down my face and getting strange looks by people next to me on the treadmill.

Although this is Whalen’s seventh novel, I’d never heard of her before receiving the pitch for this book. I’ll definitely be checking out her back list.

Thanks to Lake Union for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen:


Janine said...

Great review. I also have trouble keeping up with characters when there are so many of them. But this book still sounds very interesting.

tarafarah7 said...

I'm going to listen to the sample of this book on Audible and then get the audiobook! Thank you!

Kristy F said...

Adding to my Goodreads TBR list. Thanks.