I kissed SHARA WHEELERby Casey McQuiston
Teen crime or teenage love – it’s a mystery which has more potential to ruin lives.
Casey McQuiston has written two best-selling adult novels, but their YA debut, “I Kissed Shara Wheeler,” begins as a thriller: Shara Wheeler, the daughter of the director of the Willowgrove Christian Academy, disappears in the middle of prom, and her academic arch-rival, Chloe Green, is determined to find out why. Shara’s quarterback boyfriend, Smith, and troubled neighbor boy, Rory, complete our Scooby gang of investigators and we embark on a classic quest for missing girls.
The trio search for clues on Instagram and follow Shara’s trail of mocking messages, written in italics on pink letterhead. All the while, the count until graduation day—and the selection of Chloe or Shara as goodbye day—is ticking like the clock on doomsday.
Crime is in the air at Willowgrove because the community’s rigid evangelicalism defines homosexuality itself as a sin. That means teachers at Chloe’s school can’t even show their support for queer students. It’s an all-too-real echo of the anti-LGBTQ legislation proposed or passed in several states in the country, limiting what teachers can say about gender and sexuality. The upshot of these rules is that queer kids — in Willowgrove and in real schools across the United States — feel themselves out of the law.
In this suffocating atmosphere, Chloe, who has two mothers and is open about her bisexuality, is a rebel with a purpose. She initially just chases Shara to thwart her: “Her little stunt for attention won’t work as she planned because Chloe is a hot genius who can’t be fooled.” As Shara’s web of lies unfolds, Chloe’s plans become personal: she decides to charm Shara because if she can steal the heart of her worst enemy and the epitome of straight white girlhood, that means she’s stronger than any of Willowgrove’s bigoted rules. .
As Chloe, Smith and Rory hunt for Shara, they discover a secret: Shara’s image as the director’s perfect daughter is a carefully maintained illusion designed to hide her love for girls.
Any queer kid who has ever been to an evangelical space will recognize the dilemma Shara faces: should she deny her true self because everyone tells her it’s sinful, or should she accept who she is, even if it means she’s to embrace the role of villain? But what Chloe and Shara both recognize is that villains are powerful — and hot, too.
All the subterfuge in this story is set in prose as fizzy and sour-sweet like lemonade on a hot summer’s day. Shara has kept her good natured facade pristine with a breathtaking mix of cheating, blackmail, surveillance and hard work; it’s a thrill to watch her and Chloe outsmart each other, and it’s even better when they eventually team up. The novel echoes Rian Johnson’s “Brick” and Patricia Highsmith’s “Ripley”, but with a Sapphic twist – a teenage dream “Killing Eve”, with a better ending.
“I Kissed Shara Wheeler” is an unfettered pleasure to read. It’s a love story starring two brilliant, ruthless gay girls who fight for what they want, and woe betide the unjust authorities who stand in their way. McQuiston’s stories highlight the power of the gay community, and here a found family comes together as the plans for an exquisite heist.
Somewhere out there, in a place like Willowgrove, is a kid whose heart feels like a crime she’s terrified to solve. This book is going to save their lives. I hope they find it soon.
Olivia Waite is an award-winning author and novelist of novels for the Book Review. She writes queer historical romance, science fiction and fantasy.
I Kissed SHARA WHEELER, by Casey McQuiston. † 355 pages | Wednesday booking. † $19.99 | 13 years and older