by Ash B.
I previously shared a review for Casey McQuiston’s One Last Stop, and I’m happy to report that their YA debut, I Kissed Shara Wheeler, is an absolute pleasure to read as well.
A contemporary coming-of-age story with a mystery twist, I didn’t want to put down this temptingly readable book once I was pulled into the story. Popular girl Shara Wheeler has the audacity to pull a disappearing act a month before graduation. Chloe Green, academic rival of Shara and protagonist of the novel, wants nothing more than to bring her back in time to see Chloe win valedictorian – because what’s the point of winning without a worthy competitor?
For better or worse, Shara left behind a trail of clues designed specifically for the three people she kissed before disappearing – her quarterback boyfriend Smith, the boy-next-door Rory, and quite shockingly, Chloe. Shocking mostly because Shara – little miss perfect, daughter of the principal, and “it girl” of their small Alabama town – is, as far as anyone knows, entirely straight. However, the set-up of the novel makes it pretty clear that this is an enemies-to-lovers type of situation. The rivalry and frustration Chloe feels regarding Shara – really a mask for their magnetic attraction – is high-grade narrative fuel. What made me fall in love with the story, however, is the friendships that Chloe develops with Smith and Rory.
Chloe, Smith, and Rory come from different tiers of the Willowsgrove High hierarchy. They don’t appear to have anything in common, aside from a connection to Shara. However, the more time they spend together, the more the dynamic shifts, and the more they learn about each other and themselves. By spending time with Smith and Rory, and their respective friend groups, Chloe realizes that the way she’s looked at many of her peers has been flawed.
When it comes to stories set in high school cliques, I often proverbially roll my eyes, unconvinced that heavy-handed stereotypes of jocks, nerds, goths, prom queens, and such represent the average teen experience. I Kissed Shara Wheeler incorporates student group dynamics in a way that feels realistic and reminds me of my high school experience (Mt. Hebron, Class of 2015, what’s up!). The different social circles are often based on interests and activities – student athletes, band kids, and theater kids. However, each of those kids is nuanced, and the groups can overlap.
For example, Ace plays on the football team with Smith. He tried out for the school play and snagged the lead, and Chloe’s group of artsy, queer, nerdy friends assumed Ace did it as a joke. However, Ace is a big musical theater fan and always dreamed of being in the school’s productions. He was nervous to audition, let alone star, mainly because he was concerned about being teased by the football crew. There certainly are some rude, insufferable jocks at their school – one in particular displays misogynistic, sexually objectifying behavior towards Chloe. There are also jocks like Ace and Smith, who are kind, who try to shut down the misogyny of their peers, and who have other interests besides sports… but are pigeonholed. It’s very much like Nick (the love interest) in Heartstopper by Alice Oseman.
One of my favorite scenes happens at the senior theater party, where we hear Ace confess to Chloe about auditioning and preparing for the school musical. It shifts Chloe’s perspective about Ace, and it opens her mind to what all her other peers might be going through. Also, we get a lovely interaction when Ace and Smith get their makeup done by Chloe’s artsiest friend Ash, who happens to be nonbinary – which results in a conversation about gender that leads Smith to start questioning his gender identity:
“You know… if being a guy feels like something you have to do, like it’s an obligation or something,” Ash says carefully. “Maybe think about that.”
I’m not going to lie; it’s pretty cool to see a fellow nonbinary Ash reflected in a book I love, especially when the character gets lines like this. I lived for this conversation!
Overall, this was such a fun, joyous read. McQuiston relied on beloved tropes and archetypes that feel both familiar and fresh, thanks to the way they are subverted. Serious subjects are explored without being insensitive. The dramatic tension quickly propels the narrative forward, but there are also plenty of laughs along the way to keep the reader from feeling too stressed. (Seriously, how is CMQ so seemingly-effortlessly funny in their writing?)
Perhaps best of all, the queer friendships are exactly what I think many readers will hope for. The ending is satisfying, with the youth banding together and standing up to ‘the system,’ and starting the work of unlearning the harmful messages that they’ve internalized so they can fully accept themselves and each other. If you’re interested in a compelling mystery full of warmth, hilarity, and character growth, check out I Kissed Shara Wheeler by Casey McQuiston in print, e-book, or e-audiobook.
Ash is an Instructor & Research Specialist at Central Branch and is a co-facilitator for Reads of Acceptance, HCLS’ first LGBTQ-focused book club. Their favorite place to read is spread out on a blanket under the shade of the tree.