Saturday, October 21, 2017

Book Review: "When We Were Worthy" by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen

Well I was born in a small town
And I live in a small town
Probably die in a small town
Oh, those small communities
All my friends are so small town
My parents live in the same small town

—"Small Town," John Cougar Mellencamp

Marybeth Mayhew Whalen once again shows off her knack for getting inside the scandals and secrets of small-town America in her new novel, When We Were Worthy, and she does so in great soapy fashion.

"In Worthy, truth lived right next door to perception, but they weren't exactly friendly neighbors."

Worthy, Georgia is a small town ruled by football, as many small Southern towns are. "Once football season started, we were more the team than the town." Two beautiful cheerleaders, Brynne and Mary Claire ("MC"), rule the school, making or breaking lives by the amount of attention they pay to others. When they bestow their friendship on two sophomore cheerleaders, Keary and Leah, and encourage them to join the varsity squad, it elevates their social standing, but it also makes the two girls beholden to the seniors and their friends.

One night, after a successful game, the victory spirit of Worthy is cut short, when an accident claims the lives of MC, Brynne, and Keary. The boy who appears to have caused the accident is also from town, and survives, which, in the eyes of many in town, is unfortunate. The town and its residents are thrown for a complete loop—the cheerleaders become the stuff of legend, angels chosen to descend to heaven, and Worthy's citizens are mired in grief, anger, and suspicion.

When We Were Worthy follows four women in the midst of the tragedy—Leah, who should have been in that car with her friends that night, but the reason why she wasn't may be worse than the accident; Marglyn, a grieving mother trying to make sense of it all; Darcy, once one of the town's cheerleaders, but now the mother of the boy responsible for the accident; and Ava, a substitute teacher who moved to Worthy with her husband, who grew up there, and has a secret that, if exposed, could cause many ripples through the town. From many of these women, you get a slightly fully sense of those who died, their good points and their foibles, and their real effect on others in Worthy.

The tension simmers in the town, and you know a powder keg will explode somewhere. Will it be those who threaten to hurt the boy allegedly responsible for the girls' deaths? Will it be the marriage that is barely holding together, or the one which has recently come apart? Will the secrets that have been hidden get exposed, and will the truths come to light? Whalen knows how to keep your attention, giving you just enough to keep reading, and keep wondering what will happen.

This is the second book of Whalen's I've read, and I am again impressed at her ability to create drama without it veering into melodrama, soap opera tension without devolving into camp, and characters that aren't always sympathetic but you can't stop reading about them. Many have compared her to Liane Moriarty (as if more than one author can't seem to occupy this space), and while there is some similarity, Whalen has a style and a talent all her own.

When We Were Worthy isn't a book that makes you think, except perhaps what you might do if faced with the situations some of the characters were. But it is a tremendously entertaining book, one that cements Whalen's storytelling talent. If you like small-town drama, you'll like this one.

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