Book Review: How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao
How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao is a YA debut that’s an edge-of-your-seat drama set in the pressure-cooker world of academics and image at Sinclair Prep, where a group of students is forced to confront their secrets when their ex-best friend turns up dead.
Jamie Ruan was the fiercely ambitious, pretty, and popular queen of the highly competitive and prestigious Richard Sinclair Preparatory School. Whatever Jamie wanted, Jamie got, and if she had to use underhanded methods sometimes in order to secure her academic position or snag an extracurricular role, that was all fine by her. But when her wealthy businessman father was arrested for corruption, her school friends—some more sincere in their friendship than others—felt compelled to drop her, turning the queen bee into a social pariah.
When Nancy Luo, Krystal Choi, Alexander Lin, and Akil Patel get a group text asking them to meet Jamie one afternoon, the four friends reluctantly show up only to find that Jamie has stood them up anyway. The four feel some guilt over having ejected Jamie from their circle but are secretly glad that her father’s arrest has given them a reason to distance themselves from her toxic personality. Still, they’re shocked and saddened later by the news that Jamie has been found dead, apparently from an accidental drug overdose.
Sadness turns to fear when someone using the social media gossip app Tip Tap accuses them of having something to do with Jamie’s death. The Proctor, as the mysterious accuser calls themself, vows to expose a terrible secret about each of the four unless one of them confesses to murder. While the friends swear up and down that they had no involvement in their ex-friend’s demise, they are each hiding a potentially devastating secret that could ruin everything they’ve worked so hard for in their young lives.
Because life at Sinclair Prep is extraordinarily hard—especially with the expectations of their families pressuring them to be the best, to not be weak, to pursue academic and collegiate excellence no matter what the cost. Krystal and Akil come from privileged backgrounds, while both Alexander and Nancy are scholarship kids; what they share in common is a drive fueled by their families to overachieve. Our narrator, Nancy, tries to push down her pain and exhaustion as she pours herself into her studies, telling herself:
This was nothing. Nothing compared to what my parents had endured to rise to the top of China’s exponentially tougher educational system, only to come to the States and have to work in manual labor anyway. Nothing compared to what they’d sacrificed to bring me here, to this day, to this moment.
Everyone wanted to hear success stories about those who came from nothing, working hard to become something extraordinary.
Nobody would want to know the gritty, unpleasant details about what it took—what it really took—to get there.
With The Proctor threatening to reveal the four friends’ worst secrets, they’ll have to team up to uncover their tormentor’s identity and hopefully prevent their deepest shames from seeing the light of day. Otherwise, The Proctor promises to prove one of them guilty of murder. Nancy, Krystal, Alexander, and Akil assure each other that this threat is false. None of them would ever think of killing Jamie—would they?
This twisty tale of dark academia is like Pretty Little Liars with a primarily Asian American cast and a greater focus on academic excellence leading to future success, with all the drawbacks that accompany that mentality. The pressure cooker our students are in is suffocating, even before they’re accused of their former friend’s murder. These terrible circumstances bring out both the very best and very worst of them, as when Krystal confides in Nancy about her past:
[“]I haven’t been truthful about who I used to be before starting school at Sinclair Prep. The person I am now is basically the opposite of who I used to be. I—I pretend to be good, but really I’ve done some awful things.”
Hadn’t we all? Done awful things to stay at the top. Horrible, twisted misdeeds, for the chance to have everything, everything this school had promised us.
“You’re not pretending to be good,” I said. Because I needed this to be true, needed to know that some of it was real. “You are good. It’s called character growth.”
Katie Zhao dives deep into the psyche of kids who have to sublimate everything they naturally are in order to please their parents as well as the lengths these kids will go to in order to achieve. It’s horrifying to watch this teenage cast bend and sometimes break as they try to navigate the poisonous waters of their teenage years, dabbling in things they know they shouldn’t but unable to think of any other way to survive. How We Fall Apart is a convincing plea for less pressure and for greater mental health awareness for young people, featuring a cast that’s refreshingly different from most of the high school thrillers out there. Mature readers may find the twists less than shocking, but they’re perfectly suited to the book’s YA classification.