The Perfect Daughter Vanished on Prom Night. The Question Is: Why?


Teenage crime or teenage love – it’s anyone’s guess which has more potential to ruin lives.

Casey McQuiston has written two best-selling adult romances, but their YA debut, “I Kissed Shara Wheeler,” starts as a thriller: Shara Wheeler, the daughter of the principal of Willowgrove Christian Academy, vanishes in the middle of prom, and her academic archrival, Chloe Green, is determined to find out why. Shara’s quarterback boyfriend, Smith, and the troubled boy next door, Rory, complete our Scooby gang of investigators, and we’re off on a classic missing-girl hunt.

The trio combs for clues on Instagram and follows Shara’s trail of taunting messages, inscribed in cursive on pink stationery. All the while the count to graduation day – and the selection of either Chloe or Shara as valedictorian – ticks down like the clock on a doomsday device.

Crime is in the very air at Willowgrove because the community’s rigid evangelicalism defines queerness itself as a sin. That means that at Chloe’s school, teachers cannot even express support for queer students. It’s an all-too-real echo of the anti-LGBTQ legislation that has been proposed or enacted in several states across the country, which limits what teachers can say about gender and sexuality. The result of these rules is that queer kids – at Willowgrove and at real schools around the United States – feel outlawed themselves.

In this suffocating atmosphere, Chloe, who has two moms and is open about her bisexuality, is a rebel with a cause. She pursues Shara at first simply for the glory of thwarting her: “Her little stunt for attention isn’t going to work out the way she planned because Chloe is a hot genius who can’t be fooled.” As Shara’s web of lies unspools, Chloe’s plans turn personal: She decides to charm Shara because if she can steal the heart of her greatest enemy and the embodiment of straight white girlhood, that means she’s stronger than all of Willowgrove’s bigoted rules.

As Chloe, Smith and Rory hunt for Shara, they uncover a secret: Shara’s image as the principal’s perfect daughter is a carefully maintained illusion designed to hide the fact that she likes girls.

Any queer kid who has ever been in an evangelical space will recognize the dilemma that Shara faces: Should she deny her true self because everyone tells her it’s sinful, or should she accept who she is, even if it means embracing the role of villain? But what Chloe and Shara both recognize is that villains are powerful – and also hot.

All the subterfuge in this story plays out in prose as fizzy and acid-sweet as lemonade on a hot summer day. Shara has kept her good-girl pristine facade with a breathtaking mix of deception, blackmail, surveillance and hard work; it’s a thrill to watch her and Chloe outscheme each other, and it’s even better when they ultimately team up. The novel echoes Rian Johnson’s “Brick” and Patricia Highsmith’s “Ripley,” but with a Sapphic twist – a teen-dream “Killing Eve,” with a better ending.

“I Kissed Shara Wheeler” is an unfettered joy to read. It’s a love story starring two brilliant, ruthless queer girls who fight for what they want, and woe to any unjust authorities that stand in their way. McQuiston’s stories emphasize the power of queer community, and here a found family coalesces like the plans for an exquisite heist.

Somewhere out there, in a place like Willowgrove, is a kid whose heart feels like a crime they’re terrified to solve. This book is going to save their lives. I hope they find it soon.

Olivia Waite is an award-winning author and romance fiction columnist for the Book Review. She writes queer historical romance, science fiction and fantasy.

I KISSED SHARA WHEELER, by Casey McQuiston. | 355 pp. | Wednesday Books. | $ 19.99 | Ages 13 and up

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