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. – GoodReads

What is I Kissed Shara Wheeler about?

I Kissed Shara Wheeler is a YA contemporary romance novel set in the final month of Chloe Green’s senior year at Willowgrove Christian Academy. With very Saved! vibes, Chloe is rounding out her four years of protesting the conservative Christian values of a school that has been making people like her (and her mother) feel isolated for decades. Her senior year also marks the ending of her long time rivalry with Willowgrove’s It Girl, Shara Wheeler. As the principal’s daughter, Shara is the paragon of virtue that everyone worships–and she’s the closest thing to an academic challenge Chloe has ever met. Then, Shara kisses Chloe in the stairwell and runs away from Prom. What unravels next is, in Chloe’s words, straight out of a John Green novel as Chloe, Shara’s ex-boyfriend Smith, and her next door neighbor Rory hunt for clues and pink stationary all across town. But of course, there’s more to the story than just a treasure hunt.

A Note: Christian schools in the United States

I won’t lie, until I read the author’s note by McQuiston in which they stated that Willowgrove wasn’t really based on one school but a collection of experiences/memories I was definitely trying to figure out which Alabama Christian school this was. I was confident it wasn’t the Catholic school I attended, however as someone with a family member who attended Auburn I started mentally tracking the route we took to drive there to figure out what small town would be forty-five minutes outside and have a prominent Christian school. So, needless to say, it became pretty obvious to me at the start of the novel that the environment at least was going to hit close to home.

Though I was no longer in Alabama by the time I hit high school, I did still attend a faith based Christian school (Episcopalian) that boasted high academic standards and had archaic rules that governed code of conduct for students and teachers alike. I can tell you right now that honestly? Willowgrove seemed tame to me. In my high school, the principal would corner girls after learning they had their first boyfriend to lecture them on abstinence–and if you got pregnant you were politely asked to leave the school altogether. Like Chloe Green, I came into the school opinionated and unhappy to be there, and like Chloe Green I was one of several queer folks in my class but the only one of us who was officially out.

McQuiston includes in their authors notes that they have met many wonderful queer folks in the Bible Belt, and a theme throughout the novel is that just because they’re not out doesn’t mean queer kids aren’t there. With so many awful things happening in the world, it can be easy to fall into generalizations when angry, frustrated, or hurt. One of those generalizations is that the Southern United States (particularly the Southeast) are irredeemable, and full of Bible thumping, gun toting Republicans. This erases a lot of people, and their experiences, because ultimately we have no control over where we are born and raised. It’s tough to leave home–to say that all queer kids in small town Alabama leave for the big cities or liberal states is just incorrect.

Additionally, the experience at Christian schools like Willowgrove can happen in any part of the USA. I lived in a blue state when I attended high school, but that didn’t change the implications of the Episcopal Church’s influence on my school. I also attended a relatively liberal Catholic university for undergraduate, and there were still topics, rules, and decisions that were ridiculous due to its religious background. On a personal level, then, I find McQuiston’s work refreshing. I’ve gotten awfully tired of defending the people I know in places I’ve lived because they didn’t “get out” like I did. The stories, experiences, and feelings of those people matter regardless of how their state and country leaders behave and talk. I hope that everyone who reads this book takes from it the lesson that Chloe learns about her community and the queer kids she went to school with.

The Good


No but really. Chloe is an incredibly fun protagonist, Shara a devious and raw antagonist. The open acknowledgement that the contrivances of the plot are basically Paper Towns but queer, the Saved! vibes, the subplots and side characters–they all make this book fantastic. The depiction of Willowgrove was insanely realistic, and Chloe’s navigation of it absolutely relatable (at least for me). I especially appreciated the subtlety with which various identities were handled–from Chloe’s core queer friend group to the friends she adds along the way. The rivalry between Chloe and Shara was delightful, and that it kept developing and keeping them both on their toes was perfect. It’s so easy for a rivalry like that to end with a fizzle, but this one went out with style. The writing was humorous and convoluted and exactly like being a high strung senior in high school a month away from graduation would think.

The Okay

I dunno, I wouldn’t have minded reading more? Maybe another hundred pages or so?

The Bad


Final Thoughts

This is exactly the kind of book I wish I’d gotten to experience when I was a teenager. Not in a “I needed this” way so much as a “this is fantastic” way. I know I made a couple of references to how John Green-esque this novel is (and the book itself does the same) but in all honesty John Green novels were some of the few YA I was willing to read when I was a teenager. The majority of books featuring teenage protagonists or written for teenagers just didn’t connect with any of my lived experiences, and presented teenage characters that didn’t look, talk, or think like any teenagers I knew. So reading this, I think I would have become a big fan of McQuiston as a teenager if they’d been putting out novels back then. I am incredibly excited to see where McQuiston goes next, and I’m delighted to start my summer reading with I Kissed Shara Wheeler (and inevitably my reread of One Last Stop). Somehow this book captured the exact feeling of summer in Alabama, and the way you can both feel the ties of home and the isolation in a place that never quite wanted you to fit in. A peculiarly specific feeling, I know, but one that was overdue in YA literature.

By Catherine

I'm a lover of books, coffee, wine, and bees. Happy to join the ranks of book bloggers everywhere!

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