For some, falling apart comes with the acknowledgement that there had to be something concrete to begin with. In Katie Zhao’s debut YA novel, the students at Sinclair High fall apart through lies and deception, though their lies are built upon so many more. Tearing them apart only results in the realization that there was nothing there but mere images in the first place.
How We Fall Apart is a murder mystery with a vivid atmospheric setting reminiscent of Gossip Girl. Years of backstabbing and betrayal culminate in the murder of Jamie Ruan, the “It” girl at Sinclair High. It falls on Nancy Luo, a scholarship student and Jamie’s former “friend,” to figure out who the murderer is, in addition to who’s been sending the mysterious messages threatening to expose Nancy and her friends’ secrets.
Zhao does an excellent job mythologizing her characters, particularly the striking and mysterious Jamie, who assumes a role larger than herself as the “dead girl” that this story revolves around. As a character, Jamie is complex and terrifying. She wields her power with such subtle yet straightforward honesty that it’s easy to see why she’s the centerpiece of the crime. Jamie is also emblematic of the story’s exploration of dark academia as it intersects Asian American pressures. Jamie’s mental health and her obsessive desire for perfection serve as the most compelling arc of the narrative.
In fact, How We Fall Apart sometimes feels like reading a dystopian twist on growing up Asian American, where the “sins” of each character aren’t so much cheating on a boyfriend, but more about cheating on tests to get ahead. This is a fresh spin on the previous tropes of the thriller/YA genre. Zhao sometimes falters in her execution, relying too much on literally explaining the atmosphere she’s capturing for her audience. Yet the stakes feel incredibly high, and it makes for a very fast-paced and dramatic mystery across race and class divides.
The story loses some relatability with its dramatic and largely predictable turn, and sometimes the plot seems too fast-paced. Secrets are structured too neatly, revealed in quick succession one after the other. It often feels like the reader doesn’t really know each of the characters before they’re all being acknowledged as major players in the overall storyline. Each of these secrets possesses their own nuances, but the lack of distinction leads to all of them blurring together for the purpose of a greater yet trite message about overachieving gone too far.
There are so many layers to the issue that Zhao renders with deep attention to questions of identity and the dark side of ambition. Although readers may sympathize with Nancy for her past choices, it’s difficult to understand who she is beyond the “good girl with a dark side” main character — and maybe that’s the point, that Nancy herself suppresses who she really is. However, it’s fascinating to watch all these secrets unravel one by one, as the characters wrestle and come to terms with each other and most importantly, themselves.
While the novel’s concept is beautifully rendered, the way the conflict plays out often falls apart just as its characters do. Despite this, Katie Zhao’s How We Fall Apart is an exciting reinvention of previous tropes and a gripping addition to the young adult mystery and thriller genres.