Chloe Green has her eyes on the prize: win valedictorian, finally vanquish her academic enemy Shara Wheeler, graduate high school, and say goodbye to her small town and its homophobic inhabitants. Raised by two moms and openly bisexual, Chloe has always felt out of place at her Christian school in Alabama. But Senior Prom changes everything. Popular, beautiful Shara kisses her boyfriend Smith, bad boy next door Rory, and a stunned Chloe before vanishing, leaving only pink letters and clues for the trio to follow to find her. Angry that Shara vanishing will make her default valedictorian and wanting to beat her fair and square (no other reason of course, wink), Chloe teams up with Smith and Rory to find Shara. Along the way, she and her newfound friends confront the image of Shara they thought they knew, and Chloe will find that maybe her small town and its inhabitants aren’t what she thought they were.
Right off the bat, it’s important to acknowledge how beautifully I Kissed Shara Wheeler weaves a variety of queer characters into the story. There’s room for many different lived experiences within the narrative, and all are explored with care. For those with religious trauma who are still dealing with the ramifications of growing up queer in heavily homophobic communities, this novel will be both cathartic and potentially triggering. McQuiston does an admirable job of balancing trauma with healing. They are at the top of the queer lit author list for a reason, and their dedication to thoughtful representation continues here.
However, despite McQuiston’s typical excellence at creating lived-in worlds and their talent for propulsive storytelling, there is something missing at the center of I Kissed Shara Wheeler. Both Chloe and Shara are more obsessed with each other than in love, a strange toxicity underpinning their relationship that never really goes away. This would work if McQuiston was trying to write a darker story, but as this is a young adult romance first and foremost, nuance is largely sacrificed to get to the happy ending. While McQuiston is often thought of as a YA author, this is actually their first young adult offering. It’s impossible not to wonder if this genre is more limiting for McQuiston than the New Adult realm they normally live in. For a story about overcoming stereotypes and seeing beyond the surface, I Kissed Shara Wheeler doesn’t give its leads a lot of depth. I found myself drawn to Smith, Rory, and the other side characters, but Chloe’s sole POV limits how often we get them in the narrative.
In many ways, the mystery narrative is more compelling than the love story. The inevitable and deserved comparison to John Green’s Paper Towns becomes a hindrance as the two novels share more than a passing similarity in plot. In fact, when reading the book jacket summary, I assumed it was meant to obscure the real story by making a direct connection to the earlier YA classic. But to I Kissed Shara Wheeler‘s detriment, the actual mysteries aren’t far removed from each other. McQuiston does a good job of making the twists compelling, and the mystery is a page turner at times. But with the love story gradually taking center stage, the two major aspects of the narrative fight for dominance. Neither truly wins in the end.
The main difference between Paper Towns and this novel, and frankly what made it difficult to get invested in I Kissed Shara Wheeler, is the way McQuiston and Green handle the romantic storylines at the center of their novels. While Green used Quentin and Margo’s “relationship” in Paper Towns to ask tough questions about the horror of assigning our own desires to a person we haven’t taken the time to imagine complexly, I Kissed Shara Wheeler skips that introspection to service the romance. While Shara and Chloe both learn more about the other, and they certainly experience some growth, it just wasn’t enough to make me root for their romance to succeed.
As a reader who adores a good enemies-to-lovers relationship, Chloe and Shara barely count as rivals-to-lovers. Had McQuiston decided to lean fully into the trope and have Chloe slowly fall in love with someone she hated rather than discover new layers to someone she already had a mild crush on, I Kissed Shara Wheeler would have been a unique and far more interesting romance, particularly since it is told exclusively through Chloe’s POV.
All in all, I Kissed Shara Wheeler is an interesting YA read that I would wholeheartedly recommend to teenagers looking for queer lit. While it is not McQuiston’s best work, it still tells a compelling story with a large cast of queer characters with their trademark wit and care. It is available now wherever books are sold.