It’s rare to encounter a YA novel that so vividly depicts a high-achieving, overly self-reflective teenager (like myself at that age, or my similarly overachieving, overly self-reflective high school friends). Even more rare is a YA book that expands what the entire category of YA literature can be. Kelly Loy Gilbert’s astonishing When We Were Infinite is both.
Senior year is a time of lasts for Beth: her last time doing AP bio homework; her last youth symphony showcase performance; her last time hanging out and laughing at everything and nothing with her four best friends, Jason, Brandon, Sunny and Grace. Preparing for her Juilliard audition leads to a lot of late nights, but somehow Beth always finds time for her friends, planning the perfect homecoming evening for them, for instance, or helping Sunny check out “crafternoon” at the LGBTQ community center.
When something terrible happens to Jason, Beth desperately wants to make everything all right again. Her concern for Jason, as well as her fear of being separated from her friends, weigh heavily on her, and the new beginnings that beckon beyond graduation begin to fill her with dread rather than excited anticipation. Will Beth ever feel as electric, as real, as infinite as she does right now, in this moment, surrounded by the friends she loves?
YA is, by definition, a literature of immediacy. Explorations of family dynamics and life transitions as well as the search to find and claim one’s own identity and agency have always been staples of the category. When We Were Infinite uses these themes as starting points but brings them expansively into the 21st century. Gilbert’s characters’ experiences reflect issues that include gender, sexuality, race, class and mental health, and in every moment, these experiences feel vital and organic to both the characters and the larger story.
Microaggressions are ignored but remembered. Romances start and end. College applications are submitted, and decisions are made. And as for my own high school friends? We group-texted earlier today about this book.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Kelly Loy Gilbert reveals the central question in everything she writes.