To commemorate their “dumpster fire” of a year ending, two teenage girls light a fire in their school’s garbage dumpster. Over the course of a single day, the fire sets off a twisting chain of events and unravels a complex relationship that flickers between best friendship and so much more.
In Nothing Burns as Bright as You, Ashley Woodfolk (When You Were Everything, The Beauty That Remains) plumbs the depths of female friendship, first love and the grief that often comes with navigating—and losing—both. The narrator retraces the history of an intimate friendship with someone referred to only as “you” across the novel’s nonlinear structure, creating a portrait of a defining relationship. With the day of the fire as an anchor, readers follow the girls back and forth in time and witness them becoming best friends and partners in crime, then slowly but fully—though the narrator’s partner can’t bring herself to admit it—falling in love.
Woodfolk’s second-person free verse and rich language imbue both characters and their relationship with vivid, vulnerable life. She exposes their conflicted feelings about their love for each other as well as the exhaustion from the weight of the expectations they bear as Black teenagers. The narrator poignantly recalls her first realization that she lives “in a world that always makes things that aren’t your fault / your fault,” describing how, at age 13, she found herself in danger simply because she was a Black girl. Yet only a few lines later, the narrator reveals that when she met her friend “a year later, almost to the minute,” her friend told her, “You didn’t need to be rescued. / You are infinitely powerful. / You had already saved yourself.”
In moments like these, Woodfolk captures an intense connection between two girls in its truest form. Readers will recognize touchstones of their own friendships in the unguarded, affectionate and protective way Woodfolk’s protagonists relate to one another, and they’ll also feel the ferocity of the deep love and sadness the girls experience as their relationship begins to singe and smolder in the days before and the hours after the fire. Nothing Burns as Bright as You is an emotional inferno and Woodfolk’s best book yet.