Tuesday, 5 July 2022

CBR14 Book 17: "I Kissed Shara Wheeler" by Casey McQuiston

Page count: 368 pages
Audio book length: 9 hrs 25 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

It's not exactly easy being Chloe Green, the bisexual girl with two mums when also trying to become valedictorian at Willowgrove Christian Academy in a small Alabama town. She keeps trying to protest against the school's puritanical rules with frequent dress code violations, but also has to make sure she doesn't actually end up expelled. Chloe has friends, having quickly befriended the other queer kids at Willowgrove, but she's mostly avoided interacting too much with the rest of the student body. 

Everything changes when her academic nemesis, the most popular girl in school, prom queen, not to mention the school principal's perfect daughter, Shara Wheeler, pulls Chloe into a maintenance elevator, kisses her with some serious intent, then slips away. Two nights later, just as she is about to be announced prom queen, Shara disappears without a trace. One month before graduation, Shara is nowhere to be found. Chloe is furious (and rather confused about the kiss). She refuses to win valedictorian by forfeit. That would be an empty victory. Oh no, Chloe needs to see Shara's face when she discovers that she's been beaten, which means finding her. 

Chloe breaks into Shara's bedroom to look for clues and is startled when Rory Heron, the bad boy from next door climbing in through the window. It turns out that Shara kissed him too, one night before Prom, and now he's wondering what happened to her. Chloe and Rory find a note on Shara's distinctive stationery addressed to Rory, but the note also mentions Chloe, as well as Smith, Shara's quarterback boyfriend. Rory isn't exactly wild about the idea of telling Smith Parker, Shara's longtime boyfriend, that both he and Chloe kissed Shara. Chloe, however, wants to get to the bottom of Shara's cryptic clues, so insists Smith needs to be told. Smith gets over the fact that his girlfriend cheated on him with two others remarkably quickly and is persuaded by Chloe to join in on the strange scavenger hunt Shara seems to have arranged. 

While Chloe has barely spoken to Smith, star quarterback and one of the most popular guys in school or Rory, well-known deadbeat and rock musician, she's now forced into an unlikely alliance with both of them in order to locate all of Shara's infuriating notes. She has to go to popular people parties, break into the principal's office, crawl through air ducts (like in an action movie) and before she knows it, she suddenly knows a lot more about both Smith and Rory. She also, unfortunately, has to keep lying to her mums, not to mention her loyal friends. 

Finding Shara becomes an obsession for Chloe (much more so than for Smith and Rory) and while searching for her nemesis, she discovers a lot of unexpected truths about Smith, Rory, Shara and herself. Will Chloe find Shara in time for final exams and graduation, so she can show Shara once and for all who is best? 

I'm not sure there are enough words for me to describe how much I love and cherish Red, White & Royal Blue, Casey McQuiston's debut novel. I adore every single character in it and would read any follow up McQuiston chose to write. Of course, they don't seem interested in writing any sequels and would rather move onto other things. Typical. One Last Stop, McQuiston's second novel was fine, but it never wowed me the way that I was hoping for. I've read lots of positive reviews for it and am glad that it worked for a lot of people, but I kept wanting to love it and only managed to kind of like it. 

This book, though, McQuiston's first YA novel, pretty much had me instantly hooked. I alternated between reading it in e-book and listening to it in audio, all to get through it faster. Natalie Naudus, the audio narrator is really good and managed to give distinct voices to a large cast of characters. 

Chloe is an interesting protagonist. She would probably get along well with Tracy Flick from Election, as well as Amy and Molly from Booksmart. Alternatively, she'd instantly decide to compete against them and crush them. While Amy and Molly really only have each other, Chloe has her little group of queer friends. It becomes obvious that she hasn't really gotten to know many others at Willowgrove because she has pre-judged them rather harshly without really knowing much about them at all. Her mental image of Shara Wheeler also doesn't correspond much with the truth, but over the course of the scavenger hunt, it becomes clear to her, Smith and Rory that no one really knew Shara and the image she projected to everyone, even her parents, was a very elaborate act. Neither Smith, her boyfriend of several years, nor Rory, the boy next door with a major crush on her, had any idea how much Shara was hiding. 

I really wish that Chloe wasn't the only POV character we got in the book (we get some insight into Shara's thoughts and wishes through her notes). Smith and Rory are awesome characters and I would have loved to read more about their inner lives. The same goes for Georgia, Chloe's mostly closeted lesbian friend and Benjy, her gay buddy. These two get more or less forgotten about by Chloe in her obsession to find Shara, and it would have been great to read more about how that made them feel. Other great supporting characters include Chloe's mums and at least one of the teachers at Willowgrove. I shouldn't really be surprised that the book is full of wonderful and engaging characters, both primary and supporting, writing interesting people seems to be one of the things McQuiston does best. 

There is a romance in this book, but anyone picking up the book hoping for the intense swoon of Red, White & Royal Blue will be disappointed. The main focus of the story is on friendships, new and old, and an exploration of being a queer teen in a small, very close-minded and judgemental community. For the first two thirds of the book, there is obviously also the mystery of where Shara Wheeler disappeared to, and why. If there had been a stronger romance, this would have easily been a five-star read for me. It's still a great book, though and when I re-read it, which I known I will, knowing what the book is rather than what I initially was wanting it to be I may yet upgrade it to a full five stars.

Judging a book by its cover: I'm guessing, from the description of her in the book, that the young woman on the cover is meant to be the titular Shara herself, although while her face is partially obscured, this does not look like the most stunningly beautiful high school senior you ever saw. I also find the big obvious lipstick kisses on the envelope annoying, as they are not on any of the envelopes in the book. My least favourite of all of McQuiston's covers.
Crossposted on Cannonball Read

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