You know that feeling when one of your most anticipated books of the year becomes the most disappointing after you already published your least favorites of the year list? Yeah, I just joined that club.
rep: Korean, Indian, Chinese main and side characters
Tell me that this isn’t a killer (hehe) synopsis: A group of four friends is having their secrets outed to the whole school after one of their former best friends named Jamie dies. The person who’s spilling the tea is called the Proctor…but who are they? Why are they doing this? And not only is this a mystery novel but How We Fall Apart was supposed to dig into the terrible, competitive pressure Asian-Americans often feel from their academic peers and their parents. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite hit any of those marks.
If there’s one thing I’ve realized this year, it’s that I despise books that try to have several fantastic-sounding elements, only for all of them to feel half-baked. How We Fall Apart very much feels like a chocolate chip cookie that tastes like raw flour and egg.
We follow the first-person perspective of Nancy Luo, a girl who is on scholarship at Richard Sinclair Prep. She has a complicated relationship with Jamie, as told through flashbacks. But honestly? I feel kinda…meh about her. We only ever see the other three people in this friend group through her eyes and so everyone just feels a little flat. In fact, about a month after I’ve read this book, I don’t think I can even remember all of their names. And there are literally only four of them.
I absolutely loved the representation in this! We have Korean rep, Indian rep, Chinese rep, and more. I know a lot of people were put off by the writing style but not me! I loved it*! The emotional struggle to please family, to always aim higher, and to excel rung with me and will ring with so many people. And yes, Zhao wrote some rather poignant lines that hit so hard when it came to realizing the idea of academic pressure among Asian-American students. On the other hand…
*the amount of excitement contained in that exclamation period is simply not worth the sentence itself
what is this?
This book is not fully a story that dives deeply into the subject matter of Asian-American struggles. That would be fine if the mystery element wasn’t so basic. And the reverse is true! This is what I mean when I say books try to do too much! Instead of making one element strong and having the other play a supporting role, it feels like Zhao tried to make both elements equally strong without regard for the fact that this is only 300 pages long. You can have a book with complex themes, but oftentimes that comes at the expense of something else. You can have a well-plotted thriller but that means sacrificing some extra expository.
The mystery is disappointing in its entirety. Sure, it’s fun to read. But it also does nothing new. Every time a secret is revealed, everyone reacts like it’s the biggest deal in the world and then forgets about it pretty quickly. And while I understand the atmosphere is totally different in a rich kids boarding school where perfection is expected…I feel like the secrets were meh at times. Nothing really shocking, surprising, or devastating. Oh, except for Nancy’s little secret but that’s revealed in the trigger warnings so uh yeah. The big secret everyone’s keeping is laughably obvious. On top of that, the reveal was so boring. It came out of left-field, but also it was predictable? Why do authors put in random reveals with no foreshadowing or hinting but also somehow make them easy to guess? I really can’t figure it out.
I’m intrigued enough to read a sequel (believe me, there’s gonna be a sequel) because that ending left me curious. I understand why some loose ends weren’t completely tied up. The problem is that every loose thread felt conveniently ignored or shoved into the spotlight to create a cliffhanger.
Overall, I thought that this was just a weak story. The plot didn’t do it for me, and it didn’t dive as deeply into the topics of being an Asian-American student (and the pressure that goes with that) as I would have liked it to. On the other hand, I flew through it and I can see the potential for something great. I just think that the elements of this story individually weren’t strong, leading to a rather lackluster final product. I’d give this either 2.5 stars or 3 stars. Tell me: have you read this?