Reviews, Young Adult

I Kissed Shara Wheeler by Casey McQuiston

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I have done some of the best work of my life because of you. And I know you have done some of the best work of your life because of me. I don’t know a better way to explain what love means to two people like us.

*There may be spoilers in the content warning section below, above the summary. Tread lightly!*

Published: May 2022
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Representation: People of Colour (black folks); LGBTQIA2S+ (lesbian, bisexual, non-binary characters, mlm, wlw); Own Voices (queer author)
Content Warning: religious trauma; underage drinking; homophobia; objectification of girls; bullying; emotionally abusive parents

Summary

Chloe Green is so close to winning. After her moms moved her from SoCal to Alabama for high school, she’s spent the past four years dodging gossipy classmates and a puritanical administration at Willowgrove Christian Academy. The thing that’s kept her going: winning valedictorian. Her only rival: prom queen Shara Wheeler, the principal’s perfect progeny.

But a month before graduation, Shara kisses Chloe and vanishes.

On a furious hunt for answers, Chloe discovers she’s not the only one Shara kissed. There’s also Smith, Shara’s longtime quarterback sweetheart, and Rory, Shara’s bad boy neighbor with a crush. The three have nothing in common except Shara and the annoyingly cryptic notes she left behind, but together they must untangle Shara’s trail of clues and find her. It’ll be worth it, if Chloe can drag Shara back before graduation to beat her fair-and-square.

Thrown into an unlikely alliance, chasing a ghost through parties, break-ins, puzzles, and secrets revealed on monogrammed stationery, Chloe starts to suspect there might be more to this small town than she thought. And maybe—probably not, but maybe—more to Shara, too.

— summary from The StoryGraph

Review

You never know what someone’s YA debut is going to look like. I know what our expectations were – we tend not to form any (and live happier that way!) But if there’s one thing we should have expected, it’s the common thread in all of Casey McQuiston’s books: it’s a love letter to queerness. I think that’s why books like Red, White, and Royal Blue and One Last Stop (and now, I Kissed Shara Wheeler) touch readers like us down to our very core. Reading McQuiston’s work feels like nothing less than being seen. With each story McQuiston conveys a love of humanity, of differences and the unique things that make you, you. I Kissed Shara Wheeler is full of heart and earnest teenage reflection. It’s about stumbling through high school, starting to learn about the world outside of the small one that high school walls tend to build, and seeing the people around you as something more than what you always thought they were. It’s also about looking within yourself and reconciling all the different things that you see and feel, when the people around you see and feel different things. But above all this book is about acceptance, love, and the understanding that you are never really alone (even if it really, really feels like you are).

Okay, okay, we’re late to the party with this one – we read this book a half a year ago, but then we decided to fall off the face of the earth. Whoops! We had wanted to post our review on publication day, but we missed that, too. Double whoops! Here we finally are. We thought it fitting to resurrect our blog with one of our favourite books from the end of 2021 (considering we haven’t posted anything since, like, November). 

There’s a girl with brown eyes who reminds me of the first book I ever loved. When I look at her, I feel like there might be another universe in her. I imagine her on a shelf too high for me to reach, or peeking out of someone else’s backpack, or at the end of a long wait at the library. I know there are other books that are easier to get my hands on, but none are half as good as her. Every part of her seems to have a purpose, a specific meaning, an exact reason for being how and what and where it is.

It’s funny, because this book sets itself up almost like a pseudo-thriller. You know the one: local high school teen known for being perfect goes missing, there’s a bunch of cryptic clues lying around that connect to one another, seemingly leading some sort of climax (at the very least, finding the missing Shara Wheeler). Maybe there will be a dark twist? Who knows? It seems that this genre of YA-thrillers has certainly blown up. But no, McQuiston doesn’t go that route. Instead, what we get is this beautiful, almost poetic (I mean, would you look at those quotes?) story following our protagonist Chloe, who doesn’t fit in and who hates her small town, as she tries to find the girl she hates (the one who kissed her and disappeared). She teams up with other folks close to Shara, and the three of them embark on this treasure hunt, initially wary of each other, but slowly softening to the shared experiences and feelings that none of them would’ve guessed they had. It’s especially beautiful considering the oppressive nature of a Christian high school in small-town Alabama where bigotry may as well be a defining character trait. The young characters defy those expectations, learn from each other, and find out who they are, in all their queer glory, living off the validation of each other rather than seeking it from an entity that won’t give it to them. The characters personify a reality that heteronormative culture typically ignores: there is queerness everywhere, and it is much more common than people like to think. It is wonderful to see the depiction of LGBTQIA2S+ folks coming into themselves and finding love and acceptance with each other when the people surrounding them refuse to. 

As is usual for McQuiston’s work, this book was filled with lovely prose interspersed with witty dialogue. I Kissed Shara Wheeler was immersive in its storytelling, drawing us in with the mystery and keeping us there with the immensely flawed yet lovable characters. Chloe is fierce, angry, and stubborn (lol same); Smith is not just the two-dimensional perfect quarterback boyfriend everyone expects him to be; Rory plays the part of the uninterested rugged bad-boy who, surprise surprise, is earnest and thoughtful; and Shara – well, we wouldn’t want to give too much away, would we? Suffice it to say, it’s one of those stories that reminds you that nobody is who you think they are. The archetypes that we force on people are never as real as we believe they are. And it’s really heartwarming to watch the characters realize that about themselves and each other. There are several side characters with distinct personalities and backstories that make the town feel real. 

We’ll be honest, though – this is one of those books that slows down part-way through, where you, as the reader, press past the characters’ questionable choices and roll your eyes at their thought patterns (seriously, it was agonizing following Chloe at times). The story stagnates a little (by design), but we felt that getting to the end was well worth it. This is the kind of earnest, queer YA we love to see. It’s the kind of stuff we wish we had growing up, and feel grateful to be able to see now. We are very much looking forward to seeing what McQuiston has in store for us next…

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