In a YA thriller that is Crazy Rich Asians meets One of Us is Lying, students at an elite prep school are forced to confront their secrets when their ex-best friend turns up dead.
Nancy Luo is shocked when her former best friend, Jamie Ruan, top ranked junior at Sinclair Prep, goes missing, and then is found dead. Nancy is even more shocked when word starts to spread that she and her friends–Krystal, Akil, and Alexander–are the prime suspects, thanks to “The Proctor,” someone anonymously incriminating them via the school’s social media app.
They all used to be Jamie’s closest friends, and she knew each of their deepest, darkest secrets. Now, somehow The Proctor knows them, too. The four must uncover the true killer before The Proctor exposes more than they can bear and costs them more than they can afford, like Nancy’s full scholarship. Soon, Nancy suspects that her friends may be keeping secrets from her, too.
- Title: How We Fall Apart
- Author: Katie Zhao
- Publisher: Bloomsbury YA
- Genre: Dark Academia, Contemporary, Mystery-Thriller, YA
- Age Range: YA
- Trigger warnings: abuse, self-harm, violence, parental neglect, panic attacks, drug use, mental illness, a student/teacher relationship, racism, suicidal thoughts, suicide, murder, death of a friend, blackmail, fire, police interaction
- Rating: ★★
It must be a week of dark academia here at tea time lit, because I’m back with another dark academia review — this one is Katie Zhao’s How We Fall Apart, which is out on August 3rd! I’m super grateful to Miss Print’s ARC adoption program for sending me this ARC!
I had the highest of hopes for How We Fall Apart. After all, a dark academia book with a primarily Asian cast that addressed hyper-competitive school environments, strict upbringings, racial identity, the model minority myth, and immigrant success? Those were things I knew all too well. I so badly wanted to like this book, but it just fell so flat for me. I’m not sure if my expectations were simply too high, or if I simply couldn’t connect with How We Fall Apart.
Pitched as One of Us is Lying meets Crazy Rich Asians, and for fans of Gossip Girl, How We Fall Apart follows Nancy Luo, Akil, Alexander, and Krystal shortly after the disappearance — and murder — of their former best friend, Jamie Ruan. When someone named “The Proctor” starts threatening them and leaking their secrets on the school’s social media app, Tip Tap, the four band together once again to uncover who The Proctor truly is, and before all their secrets are revealed.
Prior to her death, Jamie Ruan was the girl everybody wanted to be. Top of her class, and with enough money that nothing could ever touch her — or at least, that’s how it appeared to be. She’s mean, classist, and just straight up cruel, in a way that had me questioning why and how she even had friends. It seemed like everyone was just scared of being on her bad side, but I really was just so confused. In fact, I wrote “how are they best friends when they all hate her?!?!?!” in my notes while reading it. Unfortunately, a lot of Jamie’s behavior seemed to retroactively be addressed by saying she had her own issues, and challenges with her mental health. Which isn’t an excuse — you can have things going on, you can have bad mental health days, but that doesn’t give you an excuse to take it out on the people around you, nor does it give you an excuse to be classist and just awful. I also wasn’t entirely sure how the quintet all became friends in the first place, and would’ve liked more backstory.
In all honesty, I found the characters pretty unlikable. I wanted more depth from them, more character development, and we didn’t get any of that. It felt like these life-changing secrets were being dropped, and instead of feeling guilty or any sort of remorse about what had happened, they were more concerned about how this would affect their reputation and the way they were perceived. These secrets also just didn’t really make sense? I was surprised at how quickly these bombshells were dropped, and then everyone just moved on past it, despite the gravity of these secrets. I really had to suspend a lot of disbelief to keep reading.
Speaking of things I had to suspend disbelief for, I was really shocked that all four characters, who weren’t really friends anymore, could rejoin and reunite so quickly. But even more so, I was shocked that all four characters, who came from varying classes and cultures, would all respond to being accused of murder in the same way. How We Fall Apart fell flat for me in many ways, but the most disappointing one was the lack of nuance. Everything felt very superficial, particularly the topics I looked forward to the most: the discussions of the model minority myth, the myth of the American dream, the discussions of mental health… everything.
As someone who also went to an incredibly competitive high school, I’m all too familiar with how that affects your mental health, and how that intersects within Asian immigrant culture. Had the characters (particularly the adults) in How We Fall Apart acknowledged their role in this, or even the school, I might’ve enjoyed this book more.
I think the best mystery-thrillers are ones that drop little clues here and there along the way, and then when the big reveal is done, you go: “why didn’t I see that all along?” or the ones that you figure out just before the characters do. Sadly, I found How We Fall Apart a little too predictable in that aspect, so I wasn’t shocked when the big reveal happened. Although, I do question if How We Fall Apart is supposed to be marketed as a dark academia mystery-thriller, or something else altogether.
For what it’s worth, How We Fall Apart is a fast-paced and short read, and I did resonate with some of the quotes. I was pretty disappointed with the ending, until the very last page, when it does leave on a cliffhanger, and makes room for a potential sequel — which alone, gives it an extra ½ star.
Katie Zhao is a 2017 graduate of the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English and Political Science, and a 2018 Masters of Accounting at the same university. She is the author of THE DRAGON WARRIOR series (Bloomsbury Kids), forthcoming HOW WE FALL APART (Bloomsbury Kids), forthcoming LAST GAMER STANDING (Scholastic), and forthcoming WINNIE ZENG series (Random House Children’s Books). She is represented by Penny Moore of Aevitas Creative Management. She’s a passionate advocate for representation in literature and media.