Review: How We Fall Apart

From the second I heard about How We Fall Apart by Katie Zhao, I knew I needed it in my life. Luckily, it exceeded every one of my expectations.

This post originally appeared on The Nerd Daily.

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. 

Publication Date: 17th August

TW: abuse, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, racismteacher/student relationship, violence, parental neglect, panic attacks, murder, death


My Thoughts:

How We Fall Apart is the Dark Academia mystery you’ve been waiting for. The explosive twists and turns, complex characters and compulsively readable writing culminate in an intensely thrilling reading experience. This is a searing exploration of power, status, race and academia. 

Katie Zhao has this innate quality to her writing that draws you into her web of deception, secrets and lies. The book opens with one of the best hooks I’ve read for quite a while and I knew instantly that I was all the way in. I was intrigued and heavily invested in uncovering all the dark and twisted truths. From there on, Zhao stuns the reader with excellent twists and turns. They always upended my expectations and the secrets had real stakes to them. The tension and atmosphere are second to none in the way they only seem to ratchet higher and higher. As a reader, you feel breathless as you race through page after page. This is one of those books that you genuinely cannot put down. Every time I thought I had the story pinned down, Zhao surprised me once more, building up to an ending that can only be described as brutal. Basically, you’ll be left needing the sequel immediately. 

The characters in this book are absolutely stellar. They’re such flawed creatures, driven by a desperate desire to succeed and obtain, then maintain power in this ultra competitive environment. It was refreshing to see how unreliable they were, particularly as narrative voices and how they were genuinely flawed. Their ruthless pursuit of status and success costs them everything, yet they’re still willing to sacrifice everything in order to obtain it. I loved how complex and nuanced they were, with hidden layers being gradually revealed over the course of the book. Zhao showcases some incredible character arcs and development that just intrigued me even more. Betrayal is a defining theme of the book, leading to fascinating dynamics and shocking revelations which only pull you in more. The school demands nothing less than perfection from its students, which always means an entangled mess of gossip and secrets is just waiting below the surface to be uncovered. This heightens the tension even more, as Zhao leans on the intrinsically problematic and highly pressurised environment in order to increase the jeopardy and pace for the reader. 

How We Fall Apart stands out from other Dark Academia style books with its razor-sharp wit and its willingness to challenge the genre. Zhao features representation of POC, the LGBTQ+ community and discussion around mental health. This diversity is a much-needed wakeup call within the genre. Far too often, the genre has been dominated with the fictional experiences of white, straight, middle class people and it’s amazing to see a book that challenges this predetermined narrative. Dark Academia holds so much potential, but as Zhao exhibits, writers should be encouraged to challenge and question cornerstones of the genre. If only certain experiences are highlighted, that means other experiences are being marginalised and erased from the narrative. Between this book and the equally excellent Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, writers seem to be challenging the institutional issues within this genre and within academia itself. The genre reflects the way academic structures systematically suppress minorities and books like this pave the way for opening conversations about the nature of academia. Similarly, Babel by R. F. Kuang looks like it’ll further this conversation when it releases next year. 

How We Fall Apart is a brilliant addition to the Dark Academia genre, with a tantalising mystery, three-dimensional and developed characters and riveting twists and turns.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

9 thoughts on “Review: How We Fall Apart

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