I’ve been kicking-my-feet-in-the-air excited to read I Kissed Shara Wheeler ever since I read Casey McQuiston’s last novel, One Last Stop. It’s their first Young Adult novel (their previous ones having been… well, adultier), so I knew I wasn’t going to get as much spice, but I still had the feeling it would be a magical read.
If you like your teenage characters bored, queer, and not a little bit Extra(TM), I Kissed Shara Wheeler is the book for you. Just take a gander at this premise: Chloe Green is in a fierce fight for class valedictorian, when suddenly her main rival plants one on her in an elevator… then disappears. Chloe does a little B&E at her house, only to discover that she’s not the only one Shara Wheeler kissed. She’s also left behind a maddening series of clues as to her location, and all three kiss-ees are going to have to work together to track her down before graduation.
So, this is a story of unlikely alliances, transcending clique boundaries in a religious Alabama high-school. Chloe is the only openly-queer girl at Willowgrove and she compensates for her outsider status with academic achievement. Smith is Shara’s long-time quarterback sweetheart who runs with the jocks and the cool kids. Rory is the boy next door who’s hobbies include writing emo songs on his guitar and breaking school rules. They all kissed Shara Wheeler, and they’re all desperate enough to work together to follow her trail.
See? I wasn’t kidding when I said the characters and the plot are Extra(TM) – but given that I Kissed Shara Wheeler is about teenagers in a small town with nothing better to do, it feels understandable (if not always totally realistic).
It’s like a queer Paper Towns at first (which McQuiston openly admits to, alluding to John Green’s best-seller with a similar plot on page 45). It has a much younger vibe than McQuiston’s previous novels; clearly, they made a conscious choice to skew this story younger, rather than just writing a book with less sex and slapping a Young Adult label on it. It focuses less on the romance and more the journey of self-discovery that comes alongside Shara’s scavenger hunt.
That’s the thing about popular kids. They don’t have the type of bond forged in the fire of being weird and queer in small-to-medium town Alabama.I Kissed Shara Wheeler (Page 4)
I Kissed Shara Wheeler feels like McQuiston’s most overtly political novel (despite the fact that their debut, Red, White & Royal Blue, was literally set in the White House). McQuiston manages to depict both radical queer joy in found families and living one’s truth, and the very real prejudices and pressure that LGBTIQA+ kids face to stay in the closet. The setting is what amplifies it – deeply Christian, deeply Southern, where (in the real world) many teachers are actually forbidden by law from responding to kids’ questions about gender and sexuality or providing them with reading materials that might help them.
Even though Chloe Green and co. clearly struggle with the deck stacked against them in their homes and at school, McQuiston keeps the tone positive and joyful. The only thing that jarred a little for me was having I Kissed Shara Wheeler explicitly set in 2022 with no mention of the pandemic at all. It would’ve completely changed the Mood of the book, I grant you, and it would’ve up-ended the high school experience of the characters… but it still felt strange. I personally think it would’ve made more sense to shift the story back to 2019 to alleviate that dissonance while retaining its contemporaneity, but that’s just me.
It didn’t detract much from what was otherwise a lovely reading experience. I Kissed Shara Wheeler would be the perfect pick for fans of Sex Education on Netflix, or anyone who considers Taylor Swift’s Mastermind their personal anthem. I’m even surer now than I was before that McQuiston has a great, long career of writing queer romances ahead of them.
My favourite Amazon reviews of I Kissed Shara Wheeler:
- “It’s like a lesbian John Green book” – Novalea Patton
- “When you put it up you can’t put it back down. You need to know where is Shara.” – Kayla Smith
- “If you love gay disasters, friendships where they’re all gay, and a little bit of mystery, then I Kissed Shara Wheeler is the perfect book for you.” – RL