- 336 pages
- August 2022 Release
- True Crime
- Unique Perspective
- Multiple Content Warnings
CONTENT WARNING: Please be advised this review mentions multiple difficult topics, including rape.
When We Were Bright and Beautiful is a unique thriller–rather than the protagonist being a victim, or the criminal (or even a therapist, like The Maidens), our MC is the brother of a young man being accused of rape.
Billy Quinn is a bright, ivy-league educated young man who comes from a wealthy background. And, he’s white. When his ex-girlfriend accuses him of raping her, Billy is quickly taken into police custody, where he most certainly will be found guilty of his crimes because of his demographics.
Cassie Quinn, Billy’s sister, understands the headlines. Billy fits the all-too-familiar sex offender profile. But, the headlines don’t know her brother. Struggling to understand how Billy fits into the story, Cassie tries to come to terms with what really happened that night, whether her brother is truly innocent, and her own past, as well.
When We Were Bright and Beautiful is a psychological true crime novel that readers will certainly think about—what happens when the man who is supposed to be the profile, but may be innocent, doesn’t stand a chance against the system?
Immediately upon starting When We Were Bright and Beautiful, I was quickly getting Death of a Salesman vibes. I’m not entirely sure, maybe it’s because Willy Loman faces much of the pressures of Cassie and Billy’s father. Despite their father’s financial “success” by marrying their mother, Lawrence hasn’t accomplished much–which has clearly caused trauma that has been passed down to his children.
Like Death of a Salesman, When We Were Bright and Beautiful starts off dry as dirt. It’s pretty difficult to get into this novel, as the author takes some time to develop the characters before the plotline. While I don’t disagree with this method for the genre, I do think that it poses a problem for the reader–it makes it entirely too difficult to connect with the story.
Initially, I thought I would not like this book. At 50 pages in, it was still dragging, and this is where I would usually DNF something. Yet, as Cassie shares surprising details about her past, I was drawn in. Cassie becomes an unreliable narrator (though I won’t say why for the sake of spoilers) and the reader immediately begins to understand why When We Were Bright and Beautiful features Cassie’s point of view, and not Billy’s.
Cassie is the only type of unreliable protagonist that I enjoy–she’s psychologically struggling to understand her place and she truly doesn’t know why she makes the decisions that she does. Like most women (or really anybody) her age, she doesn’t know her place in the world and she’s trying to find it. Though, for Cassie, that comes at a difficult price for both her and her family. I did really enjoy this aspect of the novel, as it made Cassie more relatable and helped me understand her feelings about Billy a lot better.
In its entirety, When We Were Bright and Beautiful is a complex book for just over 300 pages. I’ve never read, let alone heard of, a book that delves into the side of an accused rapist like this. At first, the book truly seems to be about how events like the #metoo movement can harm white, privileged males. It all felt very right-winged and prejudiced, which isn’t exactly the way I prefer my books.
Yet, just like many of the other books I’ve read this year, When We Were Bright and Beautiful had something to teach me about the ways of others. This book exposes sexual assualt in a way that truly is so complicated, it’s difficult to describe.
If you like true crime, or psychological thrillers, you’ll likely like this one—though be warned, it’s got a long list of content warnings to go with it’s plot.
Overall, I enjoyed this book and I learned a lot from When We Were Bright and Beautiful. I was not expecting some of the turns it took, and I enjoyed it all the more when I was artfully surprised by Cassie’s decisions. Could I do without the long title? Yup. Did I want to put this book down because of the “tell, not show” problems in the beginning? Also, yes. But, I’m glad I finished it because I truly enjoyed it.
If you’ve read When We Were Bright and Beautiful, be sure to leave a comment in the description below. If you haven’t read it yet, you can purchase it here through Amazon and then let us know what you think of it when you’re finished!
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