If you’re a queer kid who survived life as a student at a religious school, I Kissed Shara Wheeler will definitely have a strong impact on you. You’ll either remember the agonies of self-discovery under the crucible of religion, academia and social pressure, or you’ll nod your head as Casey McQuiston effortlessly wraps her arms around you and treats you to a romcom worthy of a nineties film festival, giving you the kind of romance, friendship and laughs that you deserved back then. As I’ve said before, I’m a Catholic school survivor. This novel struck a deep, big chord for me. Modern teenagers who love McQuiston’s fresh voice will also dig this.
High school senior Chloe Green breaks into her classmate, Shara Wheeler’s home, frantic to learn if the rumors are true and Shara disappeared after the previous night’s prom, just a month before graduation. Chloe and Shara have been rivals for valedictorian of their Catholic high school since Chloe moved from California to Alabama some years before, and Chloe has always had an envy-admiration thing going on for her closest competition. Shara, the principal’s daughter, is popular, bright and well-loved. But everything between Shara and Chloe is different now, since they just shared a kiss and need to hash this situation out. Even more importantly, Chloe’s worked way too hard to just become valedictorian by default. Chloe finds a letter addressed to her in Shara’s room – she rapidly learns that her best friend and neighbor, Rory Heron, also made out with Shara at a graduation party. Shara has also left behind clues for Rory and for Smith – her sweetheart of a quarterback boyfriend, whom she kissed at the prom before disappearing.
Smith, Chloe and Rory team up to try to find Shara by following the trail of clues she’s left behind, but will the quest change anything about how they look at themselves or feel about each other?
I Kissed Shara Wheeler combines the pointed commentary, wicked humor and trenchant character portraits of the independent dramady Saved!, with warmly observed and poignant portraits of teenage life from a John Hughes movie. All the kids who go to Willowgrove Christian Academy are average teenagers; they have emotions and libidos and act out and smoke or parrot their parents and their values. They’re imperfect, they’re lovable, they’re terrible, they’re funny, they’re poignant. They feel like real teens, which is what makes the book great. And no one does romance quite like McQuiston – the attraction between Chloe and Shara leans hard into foeyay before finally becoming a romance.
It won’t matter if you didn’t attend a religious high school when it comes to understanding this book, but boy, does it help. It captures the hypocrisy and repression that some of these schools offer students who don’t fit into the molds they’ve prepared them to fill.
Because of all of these factors, I Kissed Shara Wheeler is my favorite YA novel of the year so far – and well worth handing over to the teenager in your life.
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