Review of I Kissed Shara Wheeler by Casey McQuiston
I Kissed Shara Wheeler is Casey McQuiston’s newest YA book published by St. Martin’s Publishing Group. In true McQuiston fashion, this book feels like a gut punch for every queer kid who wished they could be themselves in high school. In her YA romance debut, we are introduced to Chloe Green (a local bisexual disaster with her eyes set on NYU), Shara Wheeler (sweet-tea Alabama Prom Queen), and a ragtag team consisting of a football player, a musician, and book snob.
Chloe is a phenomenal main character to follow. She carries a lot of weight on her shoulders being the child of a lesbian couple and one of the few people who are “out” in her ultra-conservative school in Alabama. It’s easy to resonate with Chloe’s yearning to achieve more than her small town with the weight of religious trauma on every teenagers’ shoulders. Right from the start, McQuiston creates an environment that explores queer youth in its most messy and cozy ways.
Focusing on the disappearance of Shara Wheeler, McQuiston sets up a really fun cat and mouse tale. Three people are kissed by Shara and then she’s just gone, with nothing but notecard clues on where she might be. Shara’s kisses shock her football heartthrob boyfriend, Smith and her very-obviously emo neighbor, Rory. It’s through Chloe’s obsession with needing to beat Shara at everything that she and her new friends uncover much about themselves and Shara.
It’s a great set-up where McQuiston really takes her time to develop these characters. They live and breathe Taco Bell. They wonder if life will always be this simple. They have intellectual discussions about whether or not Jane Austen is for the gays (in my personal opinion, she is). Chloe, Shara, Rory, and Smith make me laugh and tear up a bit as I see glimpses of high-school me trying to navigate queerness and the status-quo. It’s nostalgic but necessary how I Kissed Shara Wheeler expresses it all.
Religious trauma around being gay, bi, queer is a major exploration of this novel that keeps digging until we uncover Shara Wheeler’s big secret. I’m 25 and I’ve had some time to get over my mom saying, “I don’t think god would like it if you liked girls” to me. Every conversation surrounding how religion can be a tool of oppression and instill hopelessness in LGBTQ+ kids is hard. It’s very real and reminds me of how much my friends and I have overcome as we went off to college. What I Kissed Shara Wheeler excels at, is exploring those dark depths but instilling hope of a future where everyone can be themselves.
There’s so much yearning and angst in all of these characters and it’s balanced masterfully within the sweet spots of the novel. Rory has to grapple with coming to terms with his feelings for Shara (if it’s even Shara he has feelings for). Smith explores masculinity and faith as a sensitive guy who is a little too much of an ally. Then, there’s Shara. She’s picture perfect to everyone, but Chloe unravels how sometimes that picture is cracked and inside is vulnerability and fear.
I truly love how the romance between Chloe and Shara unfolds. Outside of the catch-me-if-you-can puzzle, Shara is a complicated and authentic character who gets a slow burn arc. Her trauma is so fractured and morphed that she can’t tell if she wants to destroy Chloe’s academic career because she genuinely hates Chloe or if it’s because she’s ridiculously in love with her. The conversations about identity exploration will have teens of today feeling safe in McQuiston’s arms as confusion, shame, and guilt are explored with the words they may not have had. The author guides readers through it and it makes for an even more heartful read.
I Kissed Shara Wheeler is a great book with many important discussions about faith, society pressure, queerness, young love, and individuality. She continues to deliver novels that feel like cups of sunshine and tug at your heart in just the right way. This is a book you can lay on the beach and enjoy and it’s a great story to kick off your summer reading with.
I Kissed Shara Wheeler by Casey McQuiston is available today at your local independent bookstore or wherever fine books are sold.