Katie Zhao turns to the dark academia sub-genre in How We Fall Apart to expose the toxic nature of competitive academics. Set at an elite prep school where students fight for the coveted position at the top, the added element of murder mystery makes readers question just how far the students are willing to go to make it to the top.
How the plot unfolds…
When Jamie Ruan, top-ranked junior at Sinclair Prep, goes missing, her four friends—Nancy, Krystal, Akil, and Alexander—are left reeling. Following these mysterious circumstances, the four friends attempt to piece together the series of events leading up to her disappearance and are shocked when Jamie turns up dead.
But when an anonymous figure known as “The Proctor” implicates them in her death by way of the school’s gossip app, the stakes become much greater. As prime suspects in her murder, the friends fight to hold onto their innocence and their secrets as The Proctor wreaks havoc on their carefully planned futures.
As a scholarship student and Jamie’s former best friend, Nancy Luo has always struggled to maintain her position at the top—after Jamie, of course. Through an alternating timeline, Zhao pieces together Nancy’s complex relationship with Jamie as well as Nancy’s own struggles to achieve her goals without the same financial advantages of those afforded the students around her. Told from Nancy’s point of view, the book delves into Nancy’s own conflicted emotions toward Jamie both before and after her death.
The concept behind How We Fall Apart is brilliant
As Katie Zhao states in an interview with We Need Diverse Books, “The reason I wanted to explore the dark academia genre from an Asian American lens is that I’ve never seen it done before, and I’m utterly convinced that dark academia is a very BIPOC story. Who faces the most academic pressure, the most microaggressions, the most barriers overall in academia?” In a murder mystery that explores the extent of this pressure, a dark academia thriller seems like the perfect way to consider this theme.
However, the execution falls flat
In attempting to tackle many intense topics such as the struggle of a highly competitive academic environment, parental pressure to succeed, toxic friendships, drug abuse, mental illness, inappropriate student/teacher relationships, and more, the book takes on too much at the cost of not being able to encompass any of these topics fully.
In addition to the book’s shallow coverage of an extensive amount of heavy topics, the characters are also difficult to empathize with. Rather than being constructed as complex individuals whose motives can be understood to some extent apart from their relatability, they instead feel like cardboard cutouts of teenagers substituted in a Netflix show.
Many of the concepts that characterize the book as a thriller or murder mystery have been done before, and they are not adopted in a necessarily refreshing or unique way in How We Fall Apart. The inclusion of so many tropes of the genre consequently made the book fairly predictable. Additionally, there was not enough time spent building up suspense within the book.
While the fast pacing helped to keep readers more invested, the lack of slowed pacing and deliberate scene setting made the book more hastily set up and difficult to believe. The “big reveal” in the book is even more difficult to believe because of the timeline in which it occurs. Since the worldbuilding is not thorough enough, neither the characters nor the setting of the story are developed in a cohesive manner for readers to understand. And this is where it all falls apart at the seams.
Overall, a disappointment
While the premise of How We Fall Apart seems promising, the use of unoriginal elements seen too many times before and the lack of worldbuilding prevent the book from achieving its intent. Unfortunately, the writing itself does not help make up for these issues in pacing and plot. Since there is not enough suspense to keep readers on the edge of their seats as thrillers tend to do, and the author attempts to cover too many topics, How We Fall Apart remains an intriguing concept yet to be portrayed in a more resonant manner.
How We Fall Apart was released on August 17, 2021.