There’s a captivating lure to narratives about rich people that reels us in, despite the pro-capitalist hellscape we live in that has working-class individuals leaving their jobs left and right. When a rich entourage of luxury brand-obsessed teenagers in “Gossip Girl” find themselves in soapy, overdramatized scenarios that seem too outlandish even for its target audience, some of us end up watching through the entire season on HBO Max — even if we don’t have a particular taste for a made-for-TV mess and $3,500 Dior bags. Katie Zhao’s latest book, “How We Fall Apart” (Bloomsbury YA, 2021), is an addictive young adult thriller that echoes the themes of the teen drama franchise as life-changing secrets remain hidden in the corridors of an elite, Manhattan-based high school.
Zhao’s novel forces a group of Asian American teenagers to confront their darkest secrets as they try to find the true killer responsible for a former friend’s death after an anonymous user singles them out on their school’s social media app. Nancy Luo, one of the students accused of murder, is determined to figure out who killed Jamie Ruan before “The Proctor” can reveal any more secrets about their friend group, even when she realizes her friends have more secrets than she could have imagined.
The genre of the grisly novel emphasizes the pressures Asian students face to succeed in school, drawing upon a unique but common aspect of the Asian American experience that often gets misrepresented in media. Through captivating prose and an illusive cast of characters, “How We Fall Apart” manages to dissect what would have been an otherwise out-of-touch elite high school experience to expose different layers of the model minority myth. Each of the four main characters reacts uniquely to the pressures to be academically successful, revealing the ugly, unspoken side of what it really takes to be a top-ranked student. Drugs, an inappropriate student-teacher relationship, and mental health issues — all forewarned before the start of the novel — point to a larger, more complex theme that exists beyond the scope of the novel.
The underlying role classism plays in academic success is not lost in “How We Fall Apart,” where the exclusive Sinclair Prep and the Manhattan landscape accentuate upper class elitism in academia. Despite being typecast as your average Asian American nerd, Nancy is more than an intelligent and overtly hardworking student: Emotionally wrecked and unreliable, she is bitter and resentful that her family isn’t as financially wealthy as the other students at her school. As the daughter of an immigrant mother who works long hours at a low-paying job, Nancy transcends the expectation her parents have for her: succeeding at Sinclair Prep, even if it’s at the expense of her own mental health and well-being. Zhao offers carefully curated snapshots of what Nancy has done to get to the top — from dodging discrimination, such as the harsh judgment that Jamie throws at her for being a scholarship student, to embarking on a months-long bad decision to get what she wants.
Advertised as the “Asian American recast of ‘Gossip Girl,’” there’s more to be said about the necessity of novels like “How We Fall Apart.” Nostalgia and a desire to see Asian girls in the media we consume may lead writers like Zhao to reimagine pop culture artifacts like “Gossip Girl,” but creators are ultimately responsible for the content they create and the reactions they elicit. Careless prose about suicide — like a scene where Nancy tells Jamie that she’s a coward for feeling suicidal — contributes to the continuous stigmatization of mental health in Asian and Asian American communities, a point that was ironically mentioned at some point in the novel. Recklessly warning readers about a student-teacher relationship before callously failing to address the wrongness of it shows a lack of accountability as a creator writing to a young, impressionable audience who may not fully grasp the full range of possible emotional and psychological repercussions like an adult would.
Through the mystery, suspense, and drama that comes with a “Gossip Girl” knock-off, “How We Fall Apart” remains beautifully nuanced, adding a new dimension to the myth of the model minority despite the author’s irresponsibility. And while the mystery-packed thriller is bewitchingly written — its recklessness making it all the more irresistible of a story — authors can no longer claim their art to be separate from politics when we live in a world where teenagers are more politically involved than ever before. Katie Zhao may have created an alluring world that has strongly challenged Asian stereotypes with sharp narration and character development, but in the process, forced its readers to question its very existence. Hiding behind an introductory warning and an almost decades-old pop culture phenomenon cannot erase the problematic themes that occur within the novel, no matter how good Zhao is at trying to make its case.
“How We Fall Apart,” published by Bloomsbury on Aug. 17, is available at your local independent bookseller. Alternatively, you can find or request the title at your local library.
Last modified: November 25, 2021