Casey McQuiston, known for swoon-worthy romances Red, White & Royal Blue, and One Last Stop, is making their YA debut this month with I Kissed Shara Wheeler, a novel that puts a similarly delicious queer spin on many of the traditional tropes of teen fiction.
A story that wrestles with themes of identity, authenticity, and self-acceptance, it features crisp, smart writing, fun twists, and a genuinely charming mystery surrounding the search for a missing prom queen. Though it often feels like the journey is more interesting than the ultimate destination, McQuiston’s book is at its best as it romps through a delightful series of misadventures or dead-ends on the hunt for Shara, revealing illuminating new pieces of our various protagonists along the way.
Raised by two moms and openly bisexual, Chloe Green has felt out of place at her conservative Christian Alabama high school since her family moved back to her family’s hometown from California. But if Chloe knows one thing, it’s how to be the best, and she’s determined to sharpen her academic skills against the best there is: Shara Wheeler, the popular daughter of the school principal, would be valedictorian and general all-around teen princess.
But when Shara disappears on Prom Night, immediately after kissing Chloe, she’s determined to track down her rival, if only to prove that she’s not the goody-two-shoes-angel that everyone thinks she is. But in order to do so, Chloe will have to work with some unlikely allies: Shara’s jock boyfriend Smith Parker and literal boy-next-door Rory Heron, both of whom have also recently kissed the missing girl, and both of whom are also in love with her (as Chloe herself claims she is not).
The three have little in common, save for the series of obnoxiously pink cards left for each by Shara in the wake of her disappearance, all of which contain clues on how to find her—and occasionally harsh revelations about their respective relationships. Though the story is meant to be about Chloe’s obsessive search for her rival, the bonds she forms with Smith and Rory, as well as the truths they each start to realize about themselves, ultimately start feeling more important than any vendetta she may have against another girl.
And this is where we come to the book’s biggest problem: Shara, herself. Despite being named in the book’s title, she gets the least amount of character development and, as a result, her journey from bitchy queen bee to marginalized heroine feels largely unearned. Also, not to put too fine a point on it, but Shara is terrible. Sure, McQuiston does some yeoman’s work in explaining why Shara is the way she is, but her behavior is so often cruel and ugly—and her attitude about it is generally so unrepentant—that it’s difficult to understand why so many people are willing to drop everything to do what she says.
As much as I enjoy a good enemies-to-lovers story, I Kissed Shara Wheeler doesn’t go quite far enough. It would be one thing if Chloe suddenly realized she loved someone she hated, but for most of the story it simply comes across as her discovering new depths to someone she mostly had a crush on already, and at least respected academically, if didn’t sort of desperately want to be friends with anyway. (An awful lot of Chloe’s initial interest in Shara reads as simple jealousy, something I wish the book had delved into a bit more directly.)
Furthermore, even the most charitable reading of Chloe’s endless obsession with Shara as sublimated attraction doesn’t excuse the way she essentially abandons all her own goals and ignores her other friends’ very real problems to chase after her. Their connection always feels vaguely toxic, and despite McQuiston’s best efforts, that feeling never fully goes away. Things do greatly improve toward the end of the novel when Chloe finally becomes a bit more introspective about how her feelings about Shara are wrapped up in her feelings about being gay in small-town Alabama, but by then it all feels a bit too little too late. That said, the ending is wonderfully sweet and open-ended, and more realistic than most teen fiction these days.
The world of Willowgrove and False Beach feels deeply lived in, and McQuiston’s story is unflinchingly honest about the sort of uncomfortable small-town judgment and religious-based shame culture that’s prevalent throughout the Deep South. That Chloe ultimately finds her tribe—one that not only accepts her for who she is but wants to change their school and town for the better—is the book’s true triumph, well beyond any romance that may or may not take place between its pages.
McQuiston’s colorful cast of supporting characters is another highlight, from Chloe’s lesbian moms (one of whom was one of the first to come out at Willowgrove in her day) to the boisterous theater kids and charming stoners that live secret lives under the watchful eye of their school’s performatively religious principal. The ease with which McQuiston weaves so many types of lived experiences and identities together into a cohesive hole is fairly magical at times, and by the time half the Willowgrove student body comes together on behalf of its most marginalized members, well, those are the moments that feel richest and most completely earned. If you take anything away from the race to find Shara Wheeler, let it be that part.
I Kissed Shara Wheeler is available now.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.