It’s been a long time since I last read a book that left me feeling viscerally changed. That is, until I finished reading When We Were Infinite a few days ago.
Sitting in the back of my family’s minivan, hurtling down a highway in Tennessee as rain pounded the windshield, I just stared at the blank page at the end of the book and thought- about the novel and the characters, yes, but also about how my life would never quite be the same now that I had read it. I could tell that the emotions I’d felt and the thoughts provoked by what I’d just read would be staying with me for a long, long time.
I’ve always read only recreationally, but ever since I started blogging and especially as I’ve become more involved in the world of Goodreads and ratings and reviews and to-be-read shelves and releases, I’ve become a much more critical reader. I no longer rate a book only on my enjoyment, but I’m also considering so many other factors as I read: do I truly like the characters? Am I bored at all? Is the writing exceptionally good?
Within the last year, I’ve found myself rating very few books five stars, and often I’ll already be thinking about the rating I’m going to give a book as I’m reading. (This might be unhealthy reader behavior.) When I was about a fourth of the way into When We Were Infinite, I knew it was going to be five stars. When I was halfway through When We Were Infinite, I knew I was going to need to talk about this book with someone, anyone. By the time I finished it, I knew that writing a blog post solely about this book was non-negotiable.
I’ve (much to my dismay) abandoned my blog terribly over the last school year. I wish I could attribute it to just being busy, but I know the reasoning lies much more with a lack of motivation or compelling content to blog about. But after finishing When We Were Infinite, I was overflowing with motivation and a desire to get all my thoughts out about this novel. Even if they’re scattered, even if this post isn’t as formatted as I normally would want and doesn’t follow the patterns of my ordinary content (something that caused me a lot of anguish over whether or not I should even post this), I ultimately decided that this is my book blog and there is no right or wrong way for me to talk about a book I truly loved (with no spoilers). So, here’s me doing just that- and thank you for being here. :’)
To begin, I would like to note that this book does have quite a bit of triggering content. One of the first things I noticed about it was that the trigger warnings were outlined on one of the very first pages of the novel, right after where the dedication would normally be found. I won’t be explicitly talking about any of the triggering content of the novel in this discussion, but I think it is very important that anyone even considering reading When We Were Infinite is aware of the triggers present before they choose to read it. They are listed in the novel as follows:
trigger warning: suicide attempt, conversations about suicide, instances of suicidal ideation, (not included in novel list, but I would also note: panic attacks, physical abuse)
I think that what really got me about this book, and what continues to amaze me each time I think about it, was the depth of relationships explored. When I read a novel, I’m always all about the relationships. There’s a reason one of my favorite series of all time is The Raven Cycle- I’ve alway said that it’s the most romantic series I’ve ever read because love absolutely seeps through every page of it, both the kind of love where you are “in love” and the kind of love one has for their closest friends and family. I felt the exact same way about When We Were Infinite.
The friendships in this novel were next level. Beth (the protagonist), Jason, Brandon, Grace, and Sunny are an incredibly close-knit group of friends in their senior year of high school. They play in an orchestra together, they struggle through their AP classes together, they have constant banter- their friendship as a group was such a beautiful thing to read about. It was evident in each chapter just how much each of them meant to the others.
Within the first five pages of this book, I thought I had it the characters figured out. I remember thinking, oh, another friend group where each character is undistinguishable from the next. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Each character was so vibrantly fleshed out that they truly felt real to me. That sounds so cliche and a typical reader thing to say, but I genuinely was taken aback by the utter realness of each character.
- Beth, the caring, quiet overthinker. An enneagram type 2 if I ever saw one. Some of her actions throughout the novel weren’t ones I approved of, but I could always see where she was coming from, and it was always a place of love- whether that was her love for her friends or her desire to be loved by them. I saw myself greatly in her, something that does not happen to me often with fictional characters.
- Jason, the mellow, kind guy who was struggling with much more than could ever be solved simply by being surrounded by his friends. A deep and truly intriguing character, especially with his actions near the end of the novel. Not quite as fleshed out as the others, but I think he was supposed to remain much of a mystery- and rather be seen by the reader through the eyes of Beth, who had an elevated view of him.
- Brandon, my favorite. Brandon was the jokester of the group (and some of his dialogue had me doing that laughing-through-your-nose-as-you-read thing), but he was also fiercely protective. Exactly the kind of friend you’d want to have on your side at any given moment. Never gave up on anyone.
- Sunny, who despite her blunt and more matter-of-fact nature, clearly loved and cared for those around her with everything she had. Unapologetically true to herself, but also true to her friends, and a wonderful encourager with characteristic honesty.
- Grace, for which I developed a soft spot after Beth mentioned how she would relay every detail of her interactions with her crush to Beth and Sunny (that was me to my friends). Grace was the sweet one, the one who fills awkward silences and compliments your outfit even when it’s just leggings and a t-shirt.
I won’t be forgetting these characters and the authenticity they brought to the novel. I want to read it all over again just for the jokes about Beth’s love for crossword puzzles and to join in on their study sessions one more time and to be in their group chat, too. I saw a bit of myself in all of them, and sometimes that’s all it takes to become very attached to characters.
As I said earlier, the love these characters had for each other was indisputable. My heart ached for each of them and their individual struggles, but it was filled with such joy to see them support each other, love each other, and share in each other’s highest and lowest points.
As the novel progressed, I also was taken aback by the truth and honesty behind their transition to college and how the friend group dealt with such a shock to their close nature. This is getting into specifics of what happens in the novel though, which is not my goal- I want you to experience that yourself as I did, I just needed to emphasize the interesting and beautiful friendship dynamics explored all throughout the duration of the novel.
Another key component I want to talk about in When We Were Infinite is the writing. Despite my aforementioned inner book critic that has reared its head violently in recent years, I don’t recall ever reading a book and thinking that the writing was bad. However, it is not all too often that I read a book and find the writing to be extraordinarily amazing, or at least worth talking about for the next, say, ten years.
The writing in this book is worth talking about for the next century, at least.
The best way I can possibly think of to describe my love for this writing is to equate it to a meal. A very delicious meal. Whatever that might be for you- for me, I’m thinking of a dimly lit restaurant with long candlesticks and a fancy white tablecloth, warm garlic rolls and steaming pasta – it is something that you would simultaneously devour and wish to savor. That’s how reading this book felt for me.
I would feel myself reading quickly, desperate to see what happened next, my eyes flying across the page, and then I would stop myself, slow down, go back and reread what I’d just read so I could fully appreciate it. It was kind of like playing red light, green light. All I wanted to do was keep reading, but at the same time, I never wanted the beauty to end.
One quote that I specifically marked while reading is below (it will not give any plot points away), but rest assured that the entirety of this novel is absolutely breathtaking. I want to read anything and everything that Kelly Loy Gilbert ever writes, because she has a true gift for weaving words together in the most magical way.
There was so much the five of us had lived through together, so much we’d seen each other through. But in the whole long span of our history together, this was the most important thing my friends had done for me: erased that silence in my life. In the music and outside it, too, we could take all our discordant parts and raise them into a greater whole so that together, and only together, we were transcendent.
I know that this book will be making my favorites of 2021 and possibly my favorites ever. It is so rare to find a book that so profoundly discusses the power of friendships and mental health, while also exploring the coming-of-age narrative we all find ourselves to be a part of at one point or another. On top of that, I took in every word with such hunger and relished in their beauty.
Ultimately, what made When We Were Infinite stand out to me so much is that it caused me to reflect on my own friendships and relationships, both current and past. As Beth, Jason, Sunny, Brandon, and Grace faced trials within their relationships and responded, I thought about challenges I’ve faced and how I responded to them. How was that different than how these characters reacted? What do my friendships mean to me, truly? Why have past friendships ended for me? How do I feel about it now? I kept asking myself all of these questions.
After I finally brought myself to close the back cover after finishing this book, the first thing I did was pick up my phone and text one of my best friends. I couldn’t even begin to imagine how to put into words what I had just read, so I just told her I’d just read a life-changing book that focused a lot on friendship, and that I wanted her to know that I was grateful for her and loved her so much. When We Were Infinite touched my heart. It reminded me to hug my friends to more. To tell them that I love them. To check in on them always. To appreciate the small moments I share with them.
Not every book makes me think like this. Not every book makes me feel like this. Not every book is so stimulating that, three days after finishing it, I still feel like I could keep on talking about it for ages. This book made me feel the rush of the human experience just a little bit stronger, and that is something I don’t take lightly.
After all, isn’t that what reading a good book is all about? It makes you feel a bit more alive and opens your eyes not only to what is unfolding on the pages in front of you, but to what is happening in the world around you.
I do recommend this book, though I urge to keep in mind that it is a very heavy book with many triggers. If you find yourself in the right mental space to read it, I hope that you love it as much as I did. I found it wonderful enough that I couldn’t think of anything else to do except write this near-essay on how much it meant to me. (:
Thank you very much for taking the time to stop by my little corner of the internet here and spend even just a moment of your day with my ramblings- it means to the world to me! I truly hope that you’re doing well, staying safe and healthy, both physically and mentally. If you’d like to talk about this novel with me in any way, shape, or form, please do leave me a comment- I would love nothing more than to hear what you think. (I also would love to hear just how you are and how life has been treating you lately.) Until next time!