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On The Shelf: ‘When We Were Worthy’ by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen

‘Sup readers? Welcome back to On The Shelf, Fan Fest’s book review column. Well, the first one, anyway. That’s right (shameless plug): in case you missed it, Fan Fest now has a second book review column to its name, called Backlist Books, dedicated to shining light on older reads, in the name of seeing if they still resonate with a modern audience. But if you’re familiar with On The Shelf, you’ll know I pick a brand-spanking-new release to review; because hope springs eternal, I always go into a new book expecting to like it. Sometimes I love it, sometimes, despite being gorgeously-written, it wasn’t my thing, and sometimes I hate it so much I can’t even recommend it. But I always try to pick something that I think I’ll be able to recommend positively, because who doesn’t love new books?

Anyway. This week’s pick is brand new standalone fiction novel, When We Were Worthy by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen. When We Were Worthy is set in the fictional, claustrophobic Georgia town of Worthy, a place where, if you’re just passing through, exudes Southern charm and a clear love— bordering on worship— of high school football. If you happen to live there, it’s far less idyllic: Worthy keeps you insulated and under a microscope powered by gossip, rumours, and judgement under the guise of being a “good neighbour.” And when tragedy strikes the small town, who else do you have to turn to besides your neighbour?

After a devastating car crash following a triumphant football game, three cheerleaders who were considered the town’s brightest future beacons are dead, and the driver of the other car— a sophomore boy from a freshly-broken home— is left alive, the immediate target of scrutiny, hatred and suspicion. In the wake of the tragedy, alliances are formed, long-buried secrets are blown wide open, and the entire town is rocked to its core.

Told from the perspective of four different women— Marglyn, the grieving mother of one of the deceased girls; Darcy, the mother of the boy who survived; Leah, the cheerleader who was supposed to be in that car; Ava, a substitute teacher shadowed by a secret— I imagine that When We Were Worthy is meant to be taut with suspense, a novel that will keep you guessing, like the Southern version of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies.

At least, I imagine that’s what it’s meant to be. It clearly wants to be, but it falls short in nearly every area of note. Whalen did an excellent job describing Worthy, its tight hold on the people who live there, and how utterly fake they are— but that’s the only thing I can commend it for. Honestly, reading it felt like gnawing on a piece of stale bread. You can eat it, it’s not going to upset your stomach, but you can also toss it out and get some fresh bread that will actually hit the spot.

I don’t understand why there needed to be multiple points of view. Each voice, regardless of whether it was childless, teenage Leah, 26-year-old educator Ava, scorned, middle-aged Darcy or grieving, middle-aged Marglyn, felt and sounded the exact same. When I’m reading a book like this, I fully expect there to be an almost tangible difference between people with entire generational gaps between them (Leah is a teenager, not a fully-grown woman. Marglyn is a mother who has just lost her beloved daughter, not a petty teenage girl. All four leads should not be interchangeable, but they are), as well as people who are struggling with different issues. The entire novel is written in such a way that each suspenseful “twist” regarding the crash feels… exactly like the rest of the book. There isn’t even an attempt made for these reveals to feel dramatic, or even vaguely important. It was almost like each person in the novel, at any time, was contemplating a grocery list with intense seriousness, not life-and-death and the secrets that died with those girls.

Also, in their hum-drum dullness and utter sameness, everybody in this novel, somehow, performed the almost jaw-dropping feat of being distinctly unlikeable, particularly Marglyn. Let me just reiterate that Marglyn is the mother who has just lost a daughter; rather than being gripped by her narrative or even feeling a little bit empathetic towards her, I found the character borderline narcissistic, and wished someone would kindly hit her in the face with a shovel. Everyone else, I just didn’t care about. At all. When We Were Worthy reads like something an inexperienced but inspired 13-year-old would write for school and then proudly show off to their family and friends with a big gold star on the top. Still, Goodreads has oodles of people fawning over this book, so my opinion is clearly the unpopular one. I could stop here, but honestly, if you want to read something that lives up to the hype, try Big Little Lies, A Grown-Up Kind Of Pretty, The Best Kind Of People, Do Not Become Alarmed, or Defending Jacob.

I think we all know by now that When We Were Worthy isn’t going on the shelf, but if you want to draw your own conclusions, you can check it out here.

On The Shelf rating: 1.5 paper pom-poms out of 5.