Finally, finally she gets it.
Shara isn’t a monster inside of a beautiful girl, or a beautiful girl inside of a monster. She’s both, one inside of the other inside of the other.
And that truth—the whole truth of Shara—leaves no room to pretend anymore. Neither of them did all this for a title. That’s what Chloe was afraid of her friends seeing. That’s where the trail led. That’s why she couldn’t let it end.
“Oh my God,” Chloe says out loud. Her brain is overheating, probably. “I’m in love with a monster turducken.”
Premise: Chloe Green has survived her high school years at Willowgrove Christian Academy fuelled by pride, spite, and the desperate desire to beat her academic rival: principal’s daughter, prom queen, church sweetheart, and all around insufferable overachiever Shara Wheeler. Shara throws a spanner in these plans when she kisses Chloe and then vanishes from town. As if the situation needed to be any more baffling, Chloe—alongside Shara’s boyfriend Smith and neighbour Rory—start finding cryptic notes written on pink stationary in Shara’s dainty handwriting…
Rainbow rep: a very tangled main f/f romance between a bisexual protagonist and a lesbian love interest; the protagonist’s two mothers; a friend group composed of a gay guy, a lesbian gal, and a non-binary pal; various members of the ensemble cast figuring out or tentatively revealing that they are not as cis or straight as we first might believe, including a romance between a gay guy and (most likely) a second non-binary character
Content considerations: the stifling experience of being queer in a small, religious town in the American South; casual homophobia from antagonistic classmates; institutional homophobia from the school; crummy conservative parents
Gay Geography 101: small towns? Bad. Big cities? Good! If you’re in the US, you want to hit the ground running as soon as you graduate and make your way to LA or New York, where your queer future will begin. If you’re in Australia, you want to hit up Melbourne or Sydney (what? You live on the west coast and don’t want to travel that far? Tough luck! Enjoy your sprawling desert of backwards bigotry! These are the only two options!).
This is a narrative that will be familiar to many people, I’m sure, and while it has its truths, it’s also one worth… unpacking.
As Derritt Mason explores in a chapter of Queer Anxieties of Young Adult Literature and Culture, this Gay Geography underlines a lot of the early ethos of campaigns such as It Gets Better:
The narrative framework of the vast majority of It Gets Better stories can be described as follows: I was raised in a conservative small town and/or in a conservative family and/or as part of a conservative religious community. I was bullied violently at school, felt isolated as a result, and contemplated suicide. I endured high school and moved to a big city and/or attended a college with a diverse campus. I found a community of like-minded queers, accepted my true self, and came out. Love, a successful career, and a family followed.
Many queers have lived and/or are living lives that echo this narrative, and I do not intend to diminish the real experiences of It Get Better’s storytellers. However, with a few small exceptions, reading the It Gets Better book cover to cover is like reading and rereading this story over and over again. Under the guise of telling one hundred and five stories, the It Gets Better book essentially tells only one, and its characters are almost always the same: adult-identified authors who have made the transition from troubled adolescence into the safety and sexual stability of adulthood, a place from which they can look back, directly address their audience of martyr-target-victims, and didactically advise them to follow a specific narrative.(Mason, 2020, p.142)
M’ck McKeague also addresses this idea, though through a more autobiographical lens, in their essay ‘You Can Take the Queer Out of the Country’ in Growing Up Queer in Australia. The image of The City as LGBTQIA+ paradise and the countryside as a backwards backwoods is so ingrained that, upon moving from rural Queensland to Brisbane, McKeague “became acutely aware of the parts of myself that were unpalatable to queers who grew up in the city” (2019, p.111). Any sense that they loved their hometown, missed their family, or, my God, had a sense of pride in their country upbringing, were met with disbelief or even revulsion. “How can you feel whole,” McKeague asks, “when the validation of your gender or sexual orientation comes at the cost of the place you’ve called home for most of your life?” (p.111)
These questions are not necessarily what Shara Wheeler is about—technically, it’s about a runaway gay prom queen playing mind games—but they underpin the narrative in such a significant way that you can’t not talk about them.
Our protagonist, Chloe, is originally from California but had to move to, in her own words, “the buttcrack of Alabama” due to family circumstances. As one of the few even semi-openly queer students at her new conservative, religious private school, Chloe slips contentedly into that familiar narrative outlined above: she’s just gotta survive high school, then grab her cluster of friends and hightail it for the blissful horizon of Gay New York. And if she can rub her success in the face of Good Christian Girl and Perfect Overachiever Shara Wheeler, all the better—it will prove that Chloe’s too good for this bible-belting tin-pot town.
But things quickly get more complicated than that. Shara smooches Chloe on the lips and then disappears into the night, leaving a trail of cryptic notes in her wake. To figure out what it all means, Chloe is forced to work with insufferable rebel Rory and insufferable jock Smith. Oh, it’s insufferable… until they turn out to be okay dudes. And until, slowly, slowly, Chloe’s defensive presumptions about them get peeled back, and they turn out to be more than meets the eye.
There’s a delight to the unfolding mystery: what exactly Shara is running from, why she’s decided to leave these three unlikely people in charge of finding her, and why she’s chosen this time and this method to air her dirty laundry and expose her own convoluted lies. The tension between Shara and Chloe as academic rivals, who mirror each other so well it’s infuriating to both of them, is delicious, and leads to some fantastic character drama as well as some moments that made me burst out laughing (especially later in the book… but no spoilers. Let it unfold gradually. It’s glorious).
But there’s also a greater, underlying delight in the bigger-picture story that kicks off once Shara disappears. Institutionally, Willowgrove Academy is a conservative hell-hole—and Chloe presumes that everyone in it either hates it like she does or is complicit in the harmful ideologies it props up. But what she discovers as she gets to know her fellow students better is a rich and bittersweet variety of responses to this place: queer kids who still hold onto their faith, jocks playing out the masculine roles expected of them but experimenting with other options when those options become safe and available, students from seemingly disparate cliques who are willing to help each other out of compassion, young people who have a complicated relationship with this little town but who will always call it Home.
And in the middle of it all is Shara, who kind of becomes the emblem of this whole conundrum. She’s easy to make assumptions about: up on a pedestal, preened and proper, blonde and rich, the antithesis to the underdog marginalised kid and the polar opposite to Chloe. But is she, though? Or is she only fitting herself into that role because it seems safe there? Maybe she’s just as angry and scared as Chloe is, under the polished pink surface. Maybe she’s ready to raise Hell, even if she’s grown up close to Heaven. Maybe if someone gives her the chance, she can have both.
I Kissed Shara Wheeler begins as a quirky mystery, and unfolds into a nuanced and heartfelt exploration of growing up different in a conservative area. I’m not from the US, so the specifics of this topic and landscape aren’t really my ballpark; but I know I’ve seen plenty of discussion online about the importance of breaking down the stigma around “red states”, how you can’t just assume that there are no marginalised people in the Bible Belt just because their system of power leans a certain way. It’s reductive, and it also runs the risk of, well… abandoning those marginalised people, both theoretically and politically.
As one of Chloe’s friends says to her late in the game, they can’t all just leave for New York and leave their home states a hollowed-out conservative mess. Someone has to stay behind and help things change. This character wants to stay behind, even if it messes with the narrative Chloe has taken as truth. It forces her to rethink her position and her goals, just as the whole convoluted adventure with Shara’s coded letters forces her to see the world (inside and outside of her school) in a different light.
So, Shara Wheeler’s fun as hell, full of great turns of phrase and bright, interesting characters (big love especially to Smith and Rory) and enigmatic rivals-to-lovers shenanigans. I can recommend it for that alone! But it’s woven through with this fascinating and, I feel, deeply important examination of the “small town bad” narrative. It’s not as simple as one chain of bonkers events changing the whole system at Willowgrove, of course. But it’s also not as simple as writing the whole place off and escaping first chance you get. Just like One Last Stop ended up as a love letter to queer history, Shara Wheeler ends up being about queer geography: encouraging us to re-examine it, and ultimately sending a love letter (an alternate It Gets Better, maybe) to the kids currently in those places.