I genuinely could not put this book down. I started it on the bus going home, and I almost didn’t get off at my stop. I finished it in one sitting when I got home. And I needed to share this book with you guys, so here’s my review!
A quick note before I begin: The author includes a trigger warning before the book starts, and I recommend taking a look at that before you decide whether or not to read How We Fall Apart.
How We Fall Apart is incredible… as long as you don’t look too far into the mystery. This is the one part of the book that can be a turn off for readers.
For me, the characters and their emotions and relationships and growth took large amounts of precedence over the mystery aspect of the plot, so you will be getting a rave review from me. However, if you are going into this expecting the sort of mystery where you reach the end and have an “oh!” moment where you realize that all the clues have slotted into place, you are out of luck.
Zhao’s reveal to the who-dunnit seems a little out of nowhere. It revolves around “The Incident,” as narrator Nancy Luo dubs it, where the four main characters and the murder victim, Jamie Ruan, were involved in something awful, something so scarring we find out early on the one of the main characters turned to drugs to cope with it. However, we don’t find out much about The Incident until near the end of the book, and the author doesn’t drop many hints throughout the story. There’s no rereading the book and watching it all add up, unfortunately, which I know many mystery readers like to do.
I don’t think it’s the worst trade-off, however. The mystery is good, it’s gripping even if the fallout isn’t all that.
Oh my god, I have so much to say about Jamie Ruan, the murder victim in this murder mystery, and it is going to be so hard to stay spoiler-free here. Jamie starts off as an awful character. Of course you feel horrible that a teenager is dead, but starting this book, I cared more about clearing the names of the main characters than I really did about finding out who killed Jamie Ruan.
And, I thought–oh, so Jamie’s a classist, entitled character–okay. We don’t have to like the dead girl. Then, Zhao threw me into a loop of emotions as I learned more about Jamie. The book travels between the past and the present, and as you learn about Nancy’s encounters with Jamie of all sorts, your feelings towards her begin to change alongside Nancy’s. Not only is Jamie an obviously very intentional and very well thought out representation of a pressured Asain kid, we also learn more about her mental health, which is a theme throughout the book.
I hated her, I pitied her, maybe I even liked her in the occasional chapter–but there is no doubt that she is a character I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.
If nothing else, read How We Fall Apart just for Jamie Ruan. You will not regret it.
Dark Academia Representation
It should be no secret that I have a lot to say about dark academia media and culture. So, I want to talk about why I like this book when overall the words “dark academia” would turn me off just by association to a subculture that is often classist and unhealthy.
Katie Zhao herself, calls How We Fall Apart, her “dark academia debut,” but she writes dark academia in a unique way–by acknowledging the toxicity, by writing it in her books how it’s not as beautiful or romantic as people portray it. She writes mental health into How We Fall Apart and takes care not to romanticize mental health issues.
She also acknowledges the classism in dark academia, with two of the four “suspects” being scholarship students at the top school the story is set at. Classism is present not only in most interactions, but it is wholly apparent in Nancy’s (the main character’s) thought process throughout the book. She is different, she’s not one of them, and it echoes through her reactions to events.
A Note On Representing Overachieving Asians (What How We Fall Apart Did Right)
Also, I loved that it showed the less glamorous side of all this academic over-achievement. Zhao talks about drug-use, exhaustion, competition everywhere, and it strikes so true. I recall feeling upset at Netflix’s Never Have I Ever representing an Asian-American Ivy League aspirer and then having her sneak out and party. It is irritating because this giant AP/IB course load, the leadership positions in college-attracting extracurriculars–it’s all a lot.
While, admittedly, How We Fall Apart was written for a very different reason and to tell a very different story than Never Have I Ever, it was still so important for me to see the stress actually getting to the characters. I like that the often-times crippling pressure of perfection and excellence in everything affects the characters, or at the very least is on characters’ minds, the same way it is on mine. It was so validating to me to see characters who felt the pressure and some who dealt with the stress in ways I could empathize with and understand.
Overall, How We Fall Apart is 100% worth the read, and I hope that Zhao’s work will usher in a new wave of Asian-American centric media and will open up these conversations about the American dream through the lens of kids born and raised to overachieve.
is a high school student in New Jersey. They like (in no particular order) books, music, science, history, running, and (of course) writing and are always up to learn something new! Find them on Instagram at @writing_stoot.