Told in verse, the newly-released young adult contemporary Nothing Burns as Bright as You by Ashley Woodfolk tells of first love, complicated friend/relationships, and emotional gravity.
The passion between the narrator and her close friend (referred to as “you” throughout the book) is flammable. Their friendship is obsessive, explosive, hungry. Though more than friends, they are not necessarily “dating,” a point of contention simmering between them. But in this troubled world, together they are recklessly coping, sharing a mutual understanding of existential grief.
Written in two timelines—-one, which recounts days “before the fire” and illustrates their past; the other, which is the present timeline after they cause a dumpster fire at school—-Nothing Burns as Bright as You depicts the messy and destructive love these two teenage girls share over the course of a day and years.
On a personal note, reading this novel recalled many of my own experiences with my adolescent best friend, and how possessive and preoccupied we were with each other, both of us experiencing this unfathomable sensitivity to the world. Now, I can recognize the unhealthy elements of my past relationship and the relationship of the characters in this book, but during that phase in my life, it was all so visceral.
Reading this book was visceral too; Woodfolk so acutely captures this fierce desperation, this insatiable longing for one another even when furious with each other or hurt by them. This is an excellent young adult novel.
Woodfolk’s writing is emotional and sharp, and while some bits may have bordered on corny or melodramatic, it felt fitting for the character and her voice.
A little more than halfway through, the narrator writes:
You asked me what was wrong, but everything was wrong.
Because there were days
when I felt my pain
and your pain
and the pain of all the Bad Things in the world.
And how could I say that without having to explain?
And how could I explain?Nothing Burns as Bright as You by Ashley Woodfolk, p. 191
This quote in particular stood out to me for two reasons. First, whether an intentional nod to T.S. Eliot or not, the repetition of the question “And how could I explain?” evoked the recurring node from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: “And should I then presume? / And how should I begin?” Eliot repeats this in a few varied ways throughout his poem, and while I cannot assert that Woodfolk wrote these lines as some type of an homage, I liked it anyway.
The other reason this excerpt resonates with me is because I have often experienced what the narrator is describing: emotionally taking on others’ pain and feeling this all-consuming despair. During my adolescent and college years especially, I had this tendency to adopt and dwell on collective agony, and on countless occasions I have thought, “I feel like all the world’s pain is inside me right now.”
Nothing Burns as Bright as You is a significant novel that will resonate deeply with some adult readers and especially young adult readers. It is intense, desperate, and angsty in a way that encapsulates traditional adolescent grief and also the pervasive societal distress that permeates today’s youth’s faltering hope. Tragic and fiery, tender and raw, Nothing Burns as Bright as You is a story which leaves its mark.
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