[Review] I Kissed Shara Wheeler by Casey McQuiston

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.

Fierce, funny, and frank, Casey McQuiston’s I Kissed Shara Wheeler is about breaking the rules, getting messy, and finding love in unexpected places.

Genre(s): Young Adult, Contemporary, Romance, Comedy, Mystery
Published by St. Martin’s Press on May 3, 2022

[ Goodreads | Storygraph | Bookshop ]

➤ Representation (click to show)

bisexual main character [Chloe], MLM/queer-questioning Black dyslexic major character [Rory], MLM/queer gender-questioning major character [Smith], gay best friends [Georgia, Benjy], AFAB nonbinary best friend [Ash], bisexual secondary character [Summer], F/F main romance [Chloe/Shara], M/M secondary romance [Smith/Rory], F/F background romance [Georgia/Summer], established F/F relationship (Shara’s moms), diverse secondary & minor characters

➤ Content warnings (click to show)

homophobia, religious trauma, sexual harassment, mention of frog dissection (for class), college admissions scam

I received a review copy from St. Martin’s Press through Netgalley; all opinions are my own and honest.

As McQuiston’s Young Adult debut, I Kissed Shara Wheeler is the epitome of its subgenre (YA romcom): the plot follows the tropes and conventions you’d expect, but the memorable characters and strong setting make it a unique and engaging read. It fully lived up to my expectations based on the synopsis and McQuiston’s previous (New Adult) works.

Let’s address the elephant in the room first. I can’t be the only one who thought the premise sounded reminiscent of, among other books, Paper Towns: a Teenage Manic Pixie Dream Girl Who Is Actually A Real Human Person With A Complex Inner Life goes missing and the protagonist, with the help of some other scrappy teens, goes looking for her. (At one point there’s an explicit reference to John Green, and also one to Gone Girl, so at the very least there’s some self-awareness of the trope.) Paper Towns is actually my favorite John Green book, so I was pleased to find that I Kissed Shara Wheeler has somewhat similar vibes/ themes — except that the latter is very Southern and very queer

I appreciated that not all the different subplots and places are given equal weight, since it could easily have gotten overwhelming; the balance creates a vivid backdrop but keeps the spotlight on the main storyline. At the same time, I want to visit Georgia’s family’s bookshop and see the senior year theater production of Phantom and watch Ash’s TikToks! (Well, okay, maybe not that last one.)

My one complaint in this category is that, as an Asian-American barista who grew up in the SF Bay Area, I am more than a little upset by Chloe’s Starbucks order, because “iced matcha latte with two pumps of brown sugar and one pump of vanilla” does not taste like boba, and I feel like someone from LA should have been able to come up with something better. (Not to digress too far, but if you’re looking for Starbucks “boba,” I’d instead suggest an iced black tea with no added water, sub the milk of your choice, add the standard number of pumps of brown sugar syrup for the size you want.) 

Her taste in drinks aside, Chloe also suffers from the condition known as YA Teenagerhood, which sometimes makes her difficult to like, even as it makes her a believably flawed protagonist. She’s pretty self-centered, with a character arc that starts at “Everything is Shara’s fault and I have done nothing wrong ever” and passes through “Oh no, I’m such a bad person that my friends don’t even realize how much I actually care about them.” And while I adore unlikely friendships as much as the next reader, and I did like the dynamic between Chloe, Smith, and Rory — what I didn’t like was how Chloe basically dumps her old friends for her new friends without any real reason. (Smith and Rory are great, but Chloe’s other friends are pretty awesome too.) It’s annoying, though admittedly not super uncommon in YA books.

On the flip side, we get a love quadrilateral that’s actually a quadrilateral: while it starts off as an “I Kissed Shara Wheeler” club where it seems like one character is the connecting point for the other three, it quickly becomes clear that it’s much more complicated when all parties involved are queer.

The book is definitely a romcom (and a wonderfully fun one), with all the absurdity and drama the genre entails, even while it explores the personal identity and growing pains of the YA demographic. It has a casually diverse main and supporting cast, and actually takes into consideration how that diversity affects individual characterization and interpersonal dynamics. It manages to balance multiple arcs in addition to the primary plot, all of which come together cohesively, both narratively and thematically. 

What I’m getting at is that I really liked this book. And if you like YA romcoms, especially queer ones, you absolutely should pick it up. (Reviewing is hard, but I can’t imagine that it even compares to how hard it must be to write such a fantastic book.)

4 stars
Rating Details

Prose: 7 / 10
Characters & Relationships: 8 / 10
Emotional Impact: 6 / 10
Development/Flow: 7 / 10
Setting: 8 / 10

Diversity & Social Themes: 4 / 5
Originality/Trope Execution:
4 / 5

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