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Autistic Teen Girl Takes On the Rich and Powerful in This Queer YA Thriller

A little party never killed nobody” is the tagline for This Is The Way The World Ends by Jen Wilde, and for good reason.

Waverly is an autistic scholarship kid from Queens at New York City’s Webber Academy. The school gives me big Gossip Girl vibes; it’s full of spoiled rich kids who have rich and powerful parents and closets full of designer clothes. This isn’t Waverly’s world at all — that is until her friend Caroline gives Waverly her invitation to the school’s annual masquerade ball. And not just her invitation but also her permission to masquerade as Caroline for the night, complete with a Christian Siriano gown. It’s not that Waverly wants to know how the other half lives; it’s that she needs to see Ashley Webber, the headmaster’s daughter, and Waverly’s ex who just disappeared one day. But Waverly is going to get more than she bargained for…

Waverly has always moved through Webber Academy differently, because she’s not rich. Her parents work at the school as a custodian and a cafeteria worker. And her mother has chronic pain and illness, which means most of their money goes to her care. While Caroline lives in a doorman building, Waverly’s family shares a one-bedroom apartment, and she sleeps on a pullout couch so her mom can sleep more comfortably in a bed. Her main access to her rich peers doesn’t come from the halls of the school — she tutors many of them for cash, even though she is also struggling in some classes. This affords her the ability to observe them while not falling prey to the lifestyles they live. It also helps that she has two best friends, Pari and Frank, to keep her grounded. Pari is wealthy but down to earth, while Frank is also a scholarship kid like Waverly.

The morning of the party, the school community is rocked when they find out that Caroline’s dad is in the hospital. Caroline is, of course, missing in action, and Waverly thinks her chances of seeing Ash again are gone. But then she gets a text from Caroline encouraging her to attend the party anyway. So now Waverly has to navigate people thinking they’re offering “Caroline” condolences while also trying to get Ash’s attention and not letting people realize she doesn’t belong there. Which is hard when Caroline’s boyfriend won’t let her out of his sight and Caroline’s friends are always nearby.

In her search for Pari, Waverly stumbles upon a secret underground in the industrial building owned by the Webber family where the party is being held. She finds Dean Webber and all of the rich white dads of his students sequestered in a private room. These men are senators, CEOS, etc. Waverly is about to find out what happens when you get a group of powerful men in a room together.

I have always thought that the U.S. is heading for a class war. If you understand that the root of most of the problems in this country begin and end with capitalism, you can understand where my thinking comes from. We’re tumbling headfirst into a recession. Inflation is limiting our abilities to live. Jobs are becoming harder to find as companies ramp up mass layoffs to maintain the CEOs’ standards of living. Any ability we may have had to “get ahead” during the pandemic is long gone, and we’re all seeing how that is playing out for us. As the wealth gap and equity gap between the one percent and the rest of us continues to widen, it is only a matter of time. Honestly, it’s already happening in small ways, but as those with all the money continue to do what they do, it’s going to be inevitable.

This Is The Way The World Ends aptly plays on the belief that the rich will do whatever it takes to maintain their status, even as the world is ending. There’s so much I want to say about the book, but I can’t give away too much of the plot. Let me just say that Dean Webber and the men he associates with will stop at nothing to maintain their power and way of life. It’s clear that Wilde based these characters off men like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, who will stop at nothing to keep their resources for themselves, even though they know how much good they could do by spreading the wealth. They don’t care, because that’s not how capitalism works. It’s the inequity that keeps the world turning. Waverly and her friends learn the hard way what these men are capable of to devastating effect.

Wilde does a good job of balancing their commentary on the wealthy without going too far overboard. Because it’s a topic that is so current, there’s space for the story to become overwhelmed by commentary. They take a very clear stance, but the characters never turn preachy or beat you over the head with a message. There’s room for the reader to come to their own conclusions about the characters and how they fit into the world they’ve created. Do I ever sympathize with the rich white guys? Absolutely fucking not. But was I allowed to come to that conclusion on my own? Yes. And that’s the most important thing.

Creating a story that keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole time is impressive, and Wilde certainly did that with This Is How The World Ends. Pacing is incredibly important with thrillers, and while Wilde’s story had me holding my breath, it still had room to breathe. I couldn’t put it down, because I was desperate to know what was going to happen next. Even the minor characters felt like fleshed-out individuals. Waverly as a main character is our way into the story, but then it feels like we’re all on the same journey with each other. She’s just as much of an observer in this world as we are as readers. As she’s making discoveries, we’re making them alongside her. The story wouldn’t hold the same weight if it was coming from a character who is wholly immersed in that world. Rich girl Caroline couldn’t tell this story; she simply doesn’t have the same omniscient point of view. She’s too close to the center of the action. Watching Waverly make discoveries is what makes you keep reading. Because you may think you’ve figured something out, but you have to wait and see if you’re right.

This Is The Way The World Ends works best because it’s a YA story. An idealistic teen drives the story in a way no adult would ever be able to. She still has a strong moral compass that hasn’t been compromised by the reality of adulthood. So she can observe the world around her with more objectivity, but also a clearer set of eyes. It’s a fun ride to take, partially because it doesn’t seem like an inconceivable predicament to find ourselves in. This is Jen Wilde’s first thriller, but I hope not her last.

This Is The Way The World Ends by Jen Wilde comes out tomorrow, May 9.

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Sa'iyda Shabazz

Sa'iyda is a writer and mom who lives in LA with her partner, son and 3 adorable, albeit very extra animals. She has yet to meet a chocolate chip cookie she doesn't like, spends her free time (lol) reading as many queer romances as she can, and has spent the better part of her life obsessed with late 90s pop culture.

Sa'iyda has written 115 articles for us.

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