Move aside Euphoria, Katie Zhao is bringing us an upcoming giant in high school drama. Zhao’s How We Fall Apart is a little bit One Of Us Is Lying, a little bit Pretty Little Liars, but with a much-needed diverse voice in the genre – and a unique twist. Zhao writes a twisting mystery and engaging characters; you won’t be able to put it down!
Nancy Luo is the second-best junior at Sinclair Prep, a prestigious and highly competitive private school. When her ex-best friend and current top of the class, Jamie Ruan, is suddenly missing, Nancy and her friends are the prime suspects. When a mysterious anonymous figure going by “The Proctor” threatens to expose Nancy and her friends’ secrets, they have to race to solve the mystery of Jamie’s disappearance before they lose everything: Like Nancy’s scholarship, and all of their promising futures.
The story unfolds in alternating chapters of past and present. We follow Nancy as she struggles to deal with schoolwork on top of solving a murder mystery, and we flashback to the time Nancy spent with Jamie. Nancy is a well-meaning girl, put under enormous pressure both by the school and her mother. She wants to succeed as much for her mother’s sake as her own, and we see through the flashbacks the ways that Jamie teased Nancy with success, and then stepped on her just because she could. Even when Nancy plays into who Jamie wanted her to be, a powerful and popular girl, it is difficult not to root for the best for her.
Zhao’s characters feel like real friends and family, so much so that you may weep for their troubles. The mystery is engaging, twisting with an ending you’ll never guess. But the characters are what really propel this story into a great work. Zhao’s exploration of the Asian-American experience really brings the story to life, especially the working-class characters like Nancy and her friend Alexander. Surrounded by the elite of the world, the two of them feel especially out of place and work hard together to climb the social ladder “The Procter” threatens to push out from under them. The friendships between these characters keep them strong, save their lives, and really drive the story in a deeply emotional and meaningful way.
This is a novel for any fan of the teen mystery genre, soon to be a genre favorite. Zhao handles serious issues in an artful way that shows a real understanding and appreciation for the teenage experience.