Review: We Used to Be Friends by Amy Spalding

  • Genre: YA contemporary
  • Publisher: Amulet
  • Publication date: January 7, 2020

Two best friends grow up—and grow apart—in this innovative contemporary YA novel

Told in dual timelines—half of the chapters moving forward in time and half moving backward—We Used to Be Friends explores the most traumatic breakup of all: that of childhood besties. At the start of their senior year in high school, James (a girl with a boy’s name) and Kat are inseparable, but by graduation, they’re no longer friends. James prepares to head off to college as she reflects on the dissolution of her friendship with Kat while, in alternating chapters, Kat thinks about being newly in love with her first girlfriend and having a future that feels wide open. Over the course of senior year, Kat wants nothing more than James to continue to be her steady rock, as James worries that everything she believes about love and her future is a lie when her high-school sweetheart parents announce they’re getting a divorce. Funny, honest, and full of heart, We Used to Be Friends tells of the pains of growing up and growing apart.

Disclaimer: I received an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to Netgalley.

Friend break-ups are an unfortunate and painful reality we don’t talk about nearly enough in society, so I was glad to see a YA book address this! And oof, a lot of this ended up hitting closer to home than I expected–with the best friend drifting apart, yes, but also discussions about college, class differences, romantic relationships, and bisexuality. And I originally felt a little disconnected from the book because I didn’t go to a public high school!

This book has a very specific structure, where James’ story starts at the end (the summer after senior year) and goes backward through time to the beginning, and Kat’s goes in the opposite direction. They mostly alternate months, so you don’t see the exact same scenes over again, and you get to see the pieces connect (although I wished I had a physical copy so I could flip back and forth to double-check months) and experience them together and apart. I found the beginning to feel exposition-heavy and a bit neat with the writing–the dialogue is definitely a bit cutesy if witty–but I felt less that way going on, and the situations are anything but neat. While Kat and James definitely had different personalities, outlooks, and voices…I’m not sure that always carried into the actual prose.

Because the story takes place over a year, each character really just narrates every other month, and and there isn’t quite a beginning, there were times where I felt like I was missing pieces of character relationships. But ultimately, it’s all the little things that pull these characters apart. There are a few big confrontations, yes, but both characters have so much going on in their lives from their parents (Kat’s widower dad is dating again; James’ parents’ perfect high school sweatheart marriage breaks up), to relationships (Kat’s boyfriend cheats on her and they breakup, then she falls in love with a girl; James re-evaluates her committed relationship to her now-college boyfriend after her parents split), to major college decisions, to parties. New people get in the way, new developments fail to be reported between them, all creating an atmosphere for distrust and drifting apart. And maybe, their personalities and paths just aren’t as compatible anymore. I really appreciated that both characters were not always likable, and neither was necessarily 100% right about her view of the other.

As I mentioned earlier, Kat and James have a distinct way of speaking and thinking, and that extends to the numerous text conversations (or lack of texting) throughout. Now, the Kindle version of the ARC was not great for formatting this, but I believe there are actually emojis in the text, which is great and I’ve been wondering if publishing and YA specifically has started to include this. (I’m such a nerd when it comes to digital linguistics.)

A couple of other quick things I liked: how grounded the LA setting was, as well as the school social structures, and how Kat’s girlfriend Quinn was so insistent about being seen as a person and not as something perfect.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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