Last month, I had the pleasure of hearing author Casey McQuiston speak at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, MA. Casey uses them / they pronouns, so I will be using those throughout this blog post.
Casey was on stage being interviewed by Meredith Goldstein (another one of my favorite writers). Meredith asked Casey how they would describe the story in their new book, and they said, "I've been telling people it's like Saved meets Paper Towns." If you love a teen rom-com, you know exactly what that means.
The book, titled I Kissed Shara Wheeler, is McQuiston's first Young Adult (YA) novel.
I was first introduced to their writing on the Forever35 podcast, when co-host Kate Spencer recommended McQustion's debut novel, Red, White & Royal Blue. I read the book in February 2020 while on a tropical trip and couldn't put it down!
Fun fact: that book is being made into a movie for Amazon Prime and the cast was just announced. Two words for you: Uma. Thurman. She plays the female President of the United States.
I Kissed Shara Wheeler is set in Alabama, where the main character, Chloe Green, is in the final weeks of her senior year of high school. Her academic rival, Shara Wheeler, has gone missing and left a trail of clues (in pink envelopes) to help Chloe and her classmates find her.
Chloe has spent the past year obsessed with her and Shara's progress towards valedictorian and she's confused on what to do. Should she let Shara disappear to clear the path to valedictorian? Or should she find her to ensure she's won this accolade fair and square?
In addition to Chloe, Shara's boyfriend Smith and next door neighbor Rory are also in hot pursuit. The three of them form an unexpected group of allies.
While Chloe is on mission "find Shara," that causes tension with her and her two best friends, Georgia and Benjy.
The book is written primarily from Chloe's perspective, but in between the chapters we get fun interludes like notes in the margin of an assignment, or notes passed between Shara and Smith, or rough drafts of Chloe's graduation speech. It keeps the book exciting and the pace moving right along.
Here's one example of a note from Chloe to her bestie Georgia. On page 13, "Shara Wheeler just kissed me. Like literally just now on my way to fifth hour . . . I was taking the faculty elevator shortcut, and she got on, and then she kissed me, out of nowhere. And I think I kissed her back??? She's hot! I panicked! She may be the bane of my existence, but she also looks like she lives in the hills of Sweden and spends all her time embroidering flowers on linen shirts like an extra in Midsommar. She looks like she smells nice and I'm here to report that she does in fact smell nice, like lilacs, except for her lip gloss, which was vanilla and mint. Like, what else am I supposed to do when a girl like that is about to kiss me? Anyone would have done the same thing."
I think McQuiston captures the realities of high school perfectly. For example, why does everyone hang out at Taco Bell? This was true in my high school in the 1990s. On page 36, "In terms of popular after-school locations for social gatherings, the Taco Bell three minutes from campus is Willowgrove's Met Gala. It's where you go to see and be seen. It's where every sophomore gets their first after-school drive-thru when they score their driver's license. Last fall, Summer Collins and Ace Torres were rumored to have had an explosive breakup in the parking lot that ended with a Baja Blast to the face." What a visual!
The story also has a deep sense of place. McQuiston grew up in Louisiana and went to a religious high school. She gave these characters very similar circumstances.
During their talk at the Coolidge Corner Theater, McQuiston shared that when you're from a small town, all you want to do is get out. But often, after you leave, you realize how special your hometown actually was.
I love the way they address that on page 141, "It's not much - Chloe knows this. It's just car windows rolled down, the blue-and-white glow of Walmart in the distance, the smell of wet pavement under the tires, the hum of neon from a Dairy Queen, the same radio station as always blasting a rotation of the same fifteen songs. But she thinks she's starting to understand what it means to be from here, because she could swear the bright red burn of artificial cherry is the best thing she's ever tasted. She leans out into the wind and tips her head back, opening her eyes to the stars, and thinks maybe everything in the world really can fit inside False Beach city limits."
I really enjoyed this book. Though I am definitely older than the target demographic, it gave me that same giddy feeling I get when watching a classic, teen rom-com. In fact, at the book talk, McQuiston said one of their favorite movies is 10 Things I Hate About You, which is also in my top five of all time.
If you're looking for something light that will keep your attention, this will do the trick. I think this is a perfect summer book to pick up poolside, at the beach, or a plane to your next adventure.