I Kissed Shara Wheeler is a young adult romcom with a mystery, as the school rebel hunts down the missing perfect girl just before graduation. Chloe moved from California to Alabama with her mums, and started Willowgrove Christian Academy, where she’s built up a reputation for herself as someone with perfect grades and a rebellious attitude. A month before graduation, the principle’s daughter Shara Wheeler kisses Chloe, then disappears. As Chloe tries to work out where Shara is, she finds other people on the same course: Shara’s boyfriend, Smith, and her bad boy neighbour, Rory. Together the unlikely alliance try to follow Shara’s clues, but maybe Chloe will also start to discover things about the town and the people in it.
A lot of people will be excited to read this new book by Casey McQuiston, aimed at a slightly younger audience than before, and looking at the weirdness of the end of school alongside the lives of queer teenagers in rural America. From the start, you are thrown into the mystery of where Shara has gone, building up a picture of Chloe’s life and those around her. Chloe is a difficult protagonist at times, incredibly frustrating especially when she’s completely ignoring her friends, but also clearly someone who does care about others when it comes down to it. I did feel like she would be drawn into Shara’s clues though, as you did get that sense from her, though there were some parts in the middle where the whole mystery element seemed to be drawn out (and then, somehow, it got resolved a long way before the end of the book). Chloe’s insistence that everything is due to her wanting to be valedictorian properly, not by default, feels like a classic romcom trope, and in general the book has a level of self-denial that I think a lot of people will find relatable.
There’s a lot of characters to keep track of, but by the end, I felt like a lot of the main and side characters were distinctive, though a few (particularly Benjy and Ash) didn’t feel like they got enough airtime in the mix, perhaps the danger with such a large cast. I particularly liked Smith and Rory’s storylines, looking at what happens when people grow apart as teenagers for no real reason, and I found the resolution very sweet. I liked Georgia too, though again, due to Chloe’s ignoring her for a large chunk of the book, you didn’t see as much of her as you might’ve. In general, one of the ways the book shines is in depicting a lot of different kinds of teenagers, and having them grow to realise their differences aren’t as different as they feel, which brings a nice atmosphere to the ending.
Having not grown up in America, I might not understand everything in the depiction of high school, and this specific kind of Christian high school in particular, but I did really like the ‘end of school’ feel and the distinctive characters in the book. It’s a fun romcom that shows how queerness in small towns comes in many different ways and sometimes people aren’t quite what you think. I stayed up too late reading it, which I think I would’ve done if it had existed when I was an actual teenager too, and that’s really how I judge what is an enjoyable romantic comedy novel.