Illustrated by Victoria Ying
“The fact that life is just throwing us together should feel like fate, but instead all I have is an impending sense of doom.”
Friends. Lovers. Competitors. Rhodes, Sarah, and Iliana are all students at the Alabama Conservatory of the Arts and Technology, a speciality high school. Rhodes is the award-winning model student, and Sarah is her roommate. Sarah and Iliana have been best friends since childhood, and they transferred to the Conservatory together, even though they don’t share the privileged background of most of the school’s students. But their friendships are challenged by one complicated fact; Rhodes and Iliana hate one another, and they are in fierce competition for the Capstone Award, which includes a scholarship to the local college of art and design. Hard-working Iliana is furious that rich, talented Rhodes might snatch the scholarship she so desperately needs. What she doesn’t know is that Rhodes is battling depression, and a creative block that is threatening to destroy her academic career and her future. Unbeknownst to them both, they share a secret online life on Slash/Spot, a fanfiction site where Curious-in-Cheshire and I-Kissed-Alice are co-creators of an Alice in Wonderland-inspired comic. But their feelings for one another might go beyond creative collaboration, if they were ever to meet in real life…
I Kissed Alice is told in alternating first person chapters, switching perspectives between Rhodes and Iliana. The chapters occasionally conclude with a comic by Victoria Ying, capturing the story of Alice and the Red Queen that Iliana and Rhodes are unknowingly collaborating on. The comics were amazing, and would have loved to see more of them included in the book, preferably in colour! Birch also uses, chat, the Slash/Spot comments, and text messages to flesh out the story. I enjoyed the fandom aspect of the book, and the intense connection Rhodes and Iliana both feel to Alice in Wonderland, as well as their f/f take on it in their comic.
The tone of this book was a little bit heavier than what I expected from the publisher’s summary and the cover art, all of which suggested a light enemies-to-lovers romp. However, the book deals with complex themes including unhealthy relationships of various types, and a protagonist who is battling with significant depression. Rhodes is wealthy and seems to have everything Iliana wants, but beneath the well-polished surface, she is dealing with a mother who is a functioning alcoholic determined to control her future, and stifling a depression that has choked off her ability to create any art other than her comic with Curious-in-Cheshire. She is drowning in the expectations of others. Meanwhile, Iliana has lost out on one scholarship after getting into trouble with Rhodes and Sarah, making for a bitter competition for the Capstone Award, which she desperately needs to afford college. Both Iliana and Sarah work part-time at a diner in addition to their studies, struggling to purchase the necessary art supplies for all their classes. Studying art at college seems even further out of reach.
Although I Kissed Alice is an enemies-to-lovers story, it is lacking in sizzle, tension, and banter. Iliana and Rhodes mostly make themselves, and Sarah, miserable with their bickering and in-fighting. The narration alternates between Iliana and Rhodes, but the perspective I felt was really missing was Sarah, who is the real life bridge between the two, and often caught in the crossfire of their arguments. Given the significant role she plays in the story, I really wanted to understand her point-of-view better, particularly towards the end of the book. Friendship is just as important to this book as romance, so Sarah not having a voice in the narrative somewhat limits that exploration.