Review: I Kissed Shara Wheeler by Casey McQuiston

  • Title: I Kissed Shara Wheeler
  • Author: Casey McQuiston
  • Genre: contemporary romance
  • Intended audience: young adult
  • Format read: eARC
  • Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
  • Pub date: May 3, 2022
  • Content warnings: homophobia, bullying
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for providing me with an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review

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.

An image of blue flowers on a white background.

It’s no secret that I love Casey McQuiston novels. Red, White and Royal Blue and One Last Stop are two of my favorite books of all time. And yet, going into I Kissed Shara Wheeler, I wasn’t actually sure whether I was going to feel the same connection. As I have gotten older (I’m 21 now, which I still can’t believe), I have been reading less and less young adult books and shifting my reading toward adult books. However, it turns out I had no reason to worry, because I absolutely adored I Kissed Shara Wheeler.

As it is a young adult book, I Kissed Shara Wheeler focuses less on the romance and more on the coming-of-age journey of its main characters. However, it still features many aspects of McQuiston’s writing that make their books so appealing to readers.

Like McQuiston’s other books, I Kissed Shara Wheeler features a glittery, larger-than-life plot that is grounded in intensely realistic characters. When prom queen Shara Wheeler skips town a month before graduation, Chloe Green decides she must find her. It certainly doesn’t help that Shara is her academic rival – the only thing standing in the way of Chloe and the Valedictorian title – and that Shara kissed her mere days before disappearing. Chloe soon discovers that Shara also kissed her boyfriend (Smith) and the boy next door (Rory) before leaving town, and left cryptic notes for the three of them to use to track her down.

Sometimes it feels like I’m gonna explode, like everything I’m feeling is the first time anyone’s felt it, ever, in the history of the universe, and then I get so angry when people don’t understand that I’m walking around feeling like this and still doing everything I’m supposed to do…I can’t even explain how I feel, and it feels wrong to say it without the right words, so I don’t say it at all, but then nobody knows, and I’m mad that nobody knows, even though I don’t even want them to know.

As is true with most books I rate five stars, my love for it comes both from how good of a story it is, and with the extreme emotional attachment I feel for it. I don’t know if I can accurately convey just how much I was Chloe Green in high school. Obsessed with getting Valedictorian, obsessed with getting out of my small town. I was not reading monster romance, but I was reading a lot. And although I wasn’t out in high school, in fact I didn’t even know I was queer in high school, this book made me realize some of the reasons why I repressed that part of myself. I saw parts of both my former and current self in these pages, and I learned more about myself from reading this book.

(Also like Chloe I am a math bisexual, which is a character type that I will continue to believe Casey McQuiston writes for me, personally, until proven otherwise).

Although they begin as rivals, Chloe and Shara ultimately find they have a lot in common. But I think the biggest thing that they have in common, that my high school self had in common with them, and that eventually all our characters find they have in common, is that feeling that no matter what you do, other people are still going to put you into the predetermined box they have chosen for you.

We put up with it for so long that we don’t even know who we are, only what they want us to be. And I don’t want to put up with it anymore.

Even if you don’t relate to Chloe’s high school experience as much as I do, there are still so many things to love about this book. McQuiston’s prose is electric and the characters are vibrant. Each of the minor characters are their own gems who have something different to add to the story.  Indeed, character is the area where McQuiston truly shines. Even when the plot is unbelievable, it is very believable that this is exactly how real people would react to the situation.

Despite its setting of a Christian high school in the small-town South, I Kissed Shara Wheeler is a book filled with queer joy. In fact, I think the setting just exemplifies how important the queer joy and the queer community are. These are young teens who are daring to stand up and be themselves in a place that works hard to repress them. Even if that bravery comes in small, subtle acts, it still matters. There are many characters exploring their gender and sexuality, which I really enjoyed reading about.

Survival is heavy on so many of us. And on a personal level, I realized I’d gotten so used to that weight, I stopped noticing how much of myself I’d dedicated to carrying it.

Even after all of my ranting, there are still so many things I didn’t even get to touch on in this review. The mystery that had me guessing who the real Shara really was. The way I loved watching Chloe become friends with Smith and Rory. The side romances that had me squealing with joy. The discussions about gender. The main romance that halfway through the book I was convinced was never going to work, but then it somehow did. Chloe’s relationship with her moms. There were so many amazing pieces of the book that were, again, all tied together with amazing prose and characterization.

I hope that many readers will love I Kissed Shara Wheeler as much as I do. It’s a story about self-love and community and being queer in a small town in the South. It’s a story of friendship – the forever friends and the ones in unlikely places. It is a story that will live in my head and my heart for a long time to come, and that I think will touch the lives of many others.

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