Title: When We Were Worthy
Author: Marybeth Mayhew Whalen
How I Read It: Audiobook
When the sound of sirens cuts through a cool fall night, the small town of Worthy, Georgia, hurtles from triumph to tragedy. Just hours before, they’d watched the Wildcats score a winning touchdown. Now, they’re faced with the deaths of three cheerleaders—their promising lives cut short in a fatal crash. And the boy in the other car—the only one to survive—is believed to be at fault. As rumors begin to fly and accusations spin, allegiances form and long-kept secrets emerge.
At the center of the whirlwind are four women, each grappling with loss, regret, shame, and lies: Marglyn, a grieving mother; Darcy, whose son had been behind the wheel; Ava, a substitute teacher with a scandalous secret; and Leah, a cheerleader who should have been in the car with her friends, but wasn’t. If the truth comes out, will it bring redemption—or will it be their downfall?
Last month, I picked up When We Were Worthy for the Contemporary-a-thon readathon. After the readathon and the spoiler free review I posted in the wrap up as well as on my Goodreads page, I realized that I needed to talk more in depth about my feelings for this book. So, if you’re looking to read When We Were Worthy and prefer not to be spoiled, I’d suggest checking out either one of those posts for my overall thoughts, because we’re about to dip into spoiler territory.
Trigger Warnings for: mentions of hazing rituals and sexual assault
The summary of When We Were Worthy drew me in because it was selling all the hallmarks of a thriller that I love: mysterious “accidents”, a small town with secrets, and friends turning against each other. However, I went in hopeful, and left disappointed. The accident was a pretty cut and dry case: three cheerleaders – Mary Claire, Brynne, and Keary – got into a car accident on the way to a party. Graham, a classmate of theirs was racing (a fact he admitted to his mother after the accident) and sped into the intersection, colliding with the girls. I assumed the crash was going to be an ongoing investigation throughout the narrative, but it was over in a few chapters.
Instead of a mystery thriller this novel read more as a study of life in a small town, where people rarely leave and if they do, they always find their way back. We saw more of how the rumor mill of Worthy, Georgia worked in the post-accident world they found themselves in instead of focusing on the tragedy itself. After the halfway mark, there were only two instances where the car accident is directly mentioned: Marglyn (Mary Claire’s mom) is coming to terms with the idea that her daughter and the other cheerleaders weren’t completely blameless, while the mothers of the other two cheerleaders want to discuss lawsuits. And Leah’s entire plotline.
Leah’s the only one of the four narrators who had an ongoing mystery in her plot. The three cheerleaders that died that night were her best friends, and she should’ve been in the car with them. Throughout the book, Leah alludes to where she was that night, and how she feels ashamed about what happened. Even though it took most of the book before the truth was officially revealed, it wasn’t hard to guess.
Brynne, the cheer captain, had told Leah if she cared about the cheer and football teams, she’d participate in a ritual that all the other girls participated in. The ritual? Sleep with the senior football players when they win. So basically, while her three best friends were drinking and getting ready to go to a party, Leah was being sexually assaulted through a hazing ritual. This plot line brings me to one of my bigger issues with the book. The lack of consequences. Marybeth Mayhew Whalen had an amazing set up for a novel about the consequences of your actions, especially with teenagers, but honestly, the only two characters that faced any consequences post tragedy were Graham and Ava.
Everything was too neatly cleaned up at the end of this novel: while Ava was fired and later charged for her assumed inappropriate relationship with a student (which I’ll get into more in the deeper look into Ava as a character), we got a few lines explaining that situation and that’s it. On top of that, the football players that assaulted Leah got no sort of punishment. The school administration told them they “had to stop” and okay, hear me out: that’s nothing. They did this under the administration’s noses for years, but this town is too obsessed with their football team to get rid of the star players. Cool. To make matters worse, the epilogue basically shrugged this off even more with the statement “they [the football players] are in college, they’re another town’s problem now”. The ending of that storyline left a bad taste in my mouth and felt that it could’ve been handled better.
Overall, I thought this plot was just okay. I was really in the mood for reading a mystery thriller when I picked this up, which might be a part of why I walked out of this book so disappointed. But now that we got the plot out of the way, let’s talk about the characters.
With a book as character driven as this, almost none of the characters were likeable. Now here’s my thing: I love morally grey characters, they’re extremely compelling. However, these characters weren’t morally grey, they were just…boring.
Leah was the most compelling narrator out of all four for me, and I think it’s because while all the narrators are close to the tragedy, Leah was almost a part of the tragedy. So, throughout this book she floats through the aftermath thinking about death and wondering why she was spared from this accident. While I found her to be the best out of the four narrators – her romance in the book was very dull. It was nothing more than a typical ‘childhood best friend turned boyfriend’ relationship, which I usually love! But in this context, the romance felt almost unnecessary. I was way more interested in the relationship between Leah and her mother, which was strained from the start of the novel. Leah convinced her mother to let her go to public school instead of being homeschooled for her sophomore year of high school. Her mother agreed, but through the entire book, she talks about pulling Leah out of the school and go back to homeschooling her. We don’t get a lot from Leah’s mom until the end of the novel, but I would’ve loved a look into that relationship instead of the budding romance between the teenagers.
Marglyn was a character that grew on me. At first, I only saw her as the mother trying to live vicariously through her teenage daughter, Marie Claire. At the beginning of the novel, you find out that she isn’t at the football game because she’s helping a less fortunate teenage girl buy clothes for a job interview. That same night, Marglyn and Marie Claire get in a huge fight, and we never hear the details of it. The most we get is Marglyn saying that her daughter said a lot of hurtful words. But we never get to hear those words, which was frustrating. The fight was alluded to in the narrative just enough times to warrant it, but we never heard exactly what it was, which seemed strange because it very much affected Marglyn the entire book. Out of all the adults we heard from, she was the most level headed in high stress situations. She made grown up decisions that looked at both sides of the problem, instead of acting without thinking based on her emotions, which the entire population of Worthy seems to have a problem with.
While all the adults in this novel had a weird obsession with high school, Darcy took the cake. At the start of this story, Darcy is dealing with separating from her husband after learning he had been having an affair. To add insult to injury, he was sleeping with a woman named Angela who, by the way Darcy spoke about her, was Darcy’s nemesis in high school. The amount of times we heard about how Angela was always jealous of Darcy’s popularity in school was truly only outnumbered by the amount of times that Darcy calls her a slut. Which look I get it, Darcy is understandably angry that Tommy cheated on her. But it was an unnecessary repetition. Her constant putting down of this woman affected my opinion of her very early on, and honestly, most of her actions didn’t make her any better.
Graham, Darcy’s son, was the student in the other car involved in the accident at the start of the novel. And while, Graham did not leave the accident unharmed – both physically and mentally – Darcy leaped through hoops to ensure that he wasn’t punished at all. Ever. I understand wanting to protect your child, but honestly, when one of the first things you say to your son when he wakes up after a car accident is essentially “don’t tell the police you were drag racing. Lie.” there are some priorities you need to think about. The entire town shuns Darcy because her son was the “kid who killed the cheerleaders” (which makes me laugh because of how the town just wanted to forget that Leah told them the football team was sexually assaulting cheerleaders, but anyways…)
While Darcy deals with her childhood friends turning their back on her and Graham being threatened by the football players trying to seek revenge, she turns to someone to lean on. Clay, Ava’s husband (Ava is the fourth narrator. I’ll talk about her in depth in a second). Clay is dealing with drama of his own, and they found themselves falling for each other. They share a kiss in the narrative, and I was totally on board for their relationship. But no. Because another man was giving his ex-wife, who he cheated on, attention, Tommy suddenly wanted her back. So, she took him back. Which usually is just a shrug off thing for me. But the main reason it was frustrating for me was the fact that Darcy hated Tommy at the beginning of the book. She went as far as to pour red paint on her wedding gown and using it as a combination Halloween decoration and announcement of his infidelity to the town. Overall, Darcy’s parts kind of turned into a very weird love triangle more than anything, which was disappointing.
Okay. Before we talk about her, I’m going to say this: I did not like Ava. At all. I found her story to be unnecessary and pigeonholed into the narrative, and I couldn’t tell you a redeemable fact about her. Whew, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get into it. Ava is the outsider in Worthy. She met Clay in Atlanta and they got married and had two kids there and they moved back to his hometown because Clay’s family wanted him to take over the running of their restaurant.
Right from the start, Ava isn’t interested in being a part of Worthy, which I don’t really blame her for. The constant gossip feels exhausting, and being a woman from a big city, it must be a culture shock to go from a huge city to a tiny town where everyone knows everyone but you. She’s younger than Clay, so she also feels a disconnect in that regard. I don’t fault her for any of that. What I do fault her for though, is how, after the church service for the dead teenage girls, she decides to leverage her status as their teacher to gain sympathy and attention.
Ava is a narrator in this novel for two reasons: she’s a substitute teacher at the school, and taught the cheerleaders that died, and, she’s involved in a “student teacher relationship” with a football player named Ian, who is later identified as one of the football players involved with Leah’s plot. Ava is on the young side. Her age is never specified, but I’m guessing that she’s late 20s to early 30s. Mostly because of the way she behaves, but also because of the age difference mentioned regarding her relationship with Clay. So, apparently, as a young substitute teacher, to seem more available to help students whenever they needed, she exchanged phone numbers with her students. Now, it’s been about 5ish years since I’ve been in high school, but exchanging numbers with teachers wasn’t something wasn’t heard of unless your teacher was also your sports coach. But Ava was a substitute teacher, so why couldn’t the students just use her school email? Okay, I think I should stop talking about the cell phone exchange…
The beginning chapters of the novel has Ava sitting alone, while Clay is working. Lonely and bored, she’s texting another man. The texts are very flirty and allude to an affair, and those allusions are supposed to be proven at the football game, where Ava hugs a man who is not her husband. We find out that it’s a student she’s flirting with, and I wasn’t really surprised. It’s a book about a small town with scandals, so I was expecting the student teacher relationship cliché. But Whalen flips it, in a very confusing way.
Ian has nude photos of Ava on her phone. And it’s assumed, by everyone in the novel, that she sent them to him. But Ian stole them off Ava’s phone, after Ava handed him her phone to look something up, which is confusing. Ian, being a teenage boy, showed all his friends during the memorial assembly for the three dead cheerleaders, and got caught on their cell phones, and Ava got fired for sending nudes to a student. Ava’s life gets flipped upside down – she must deal with being accused of pedophilia, and her husband and his family (who she lives with), despises her.
The entire book, I was wondering how she fit into the overall plot, and why she was chosen over another mother of a victim (or even Leah’s mom) to be a narrator. And it took the entire novel to explain how her story was shoehorned into the overall narrative. In the epilogue, which was told through the eyes of the cheerleaders who died, we find out that Keary caught Ian and Ava hugging at the football game. And since she was driving, she was stressed out about the hug she saw, and drove through a stop sign while trying to tell her friends about it. Overall, I just don’t buy it, and I feel like Whalen just wanted to have a student teacher relationship in the plot, but didn’t know how to fit it in to the big picture. I felt like Ava wasn’t necessary as a narrator, and the fourth narrator could’ve been anyone else, specifically another mom of one of the victims.
Honestly, I think most of my disappointment stemmed from this novel not being an actual thriller. If it had been advertised to me as a small-town drama, maybe I would’ve enjoyed it a touch more. The writing was amazing in parts, but the characters just didn’t interest me, which is a problem when the book is as character driven as this one.
Have you guys read When We Were Worthy? Do you agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments! Haven’t read the book? Let me know what your most recent disappointing read was in the comments!