There are very few contemporary realistic novels that I seek out. At this point in my life, I know what I like to read, and I stick to it, mostly. But for some reason, I picked up Everybody Sees the Ants last year (a book that straddles the line between fantasy and reality anyway) and it was all over from there. I was hooked on King's writing, on the way she gets readers into her characters' heads and makes us love them even when we're exasperated by them.
Ask the Passengers is another winner from King, and I loved it even though it is the lightest on fantasy elements of the three of hers I've read.
Astrid Jones is a girl who is falling in love with another girl. She keeps it a secret for a long time, not only because of pressure from her family, friends, and schoolmates, but also because she just isn't sure what it means to her. When she does let people know that she's been dating another girl, the reactions are varied: disbelief, anger, hatred, and some happiness, too. What sets this apart from other books about a girl exploring her sexuality is the way King handles it. She's an expert at her craft - I knew Astrid, I felt her struggles, and I related to her need to be accepted, to be loved for who she is. It's a well-trod theme but such an important one. It could have seemed stale in anyone else's hands, but in King's hands, it was fresh.
Astrid's family is by turns loving and cruel, and King is so good at getting us as readers to see these ancillary characters as whole people, who are often hateful out of fear. Astrid's sister in particular does some truly awful things, but realistic things, things that Astrid must accept and get past for the sake of her relationship with her sister. I saw a very strong theme of forgiveness here: forgiveness when it's not asked for and perhaps not deserving, but necessary nonetheless.
The metaphors King excels at are here too, in the form of the passengers in the planes that fly over Astrid's town. Astrid will "send her love" to the passengers above, and we as readers get the passengers' stories in return. They're varied, some happy, some not, but they're connected to Astrid and to each other and allow the meaning of the story to expand. The passengers are also a way for Astrid to express herself fully to others, since she feels so stifled by the people around her.
Stories about "coming out" are being published with more frequency lately, but I wouldn't call this story a coming out story. It's about Astrid's relationships with her family and friends as they realize she loves another girl, yes, but it's even more about Astrid's relationship with herself. She's frustrated when her gay (and straight) peers demand a definition for her sexuality: Is she gay? Is she straight? Astrid comes to accept that she just is, and she demands that other people not put her in a box too.
A. S. King gets better with each book. There's no question in my mind that Ask the Passengers is her best to date.
Astrid Jones feels alone and confused and lost, but rather than wallow in that, rather than try to figure herself or her family out, she sends her love to everyone around her. She loves sending it up to the passengers in the planes who fly over her tiny, rural town. It's her escape from this place, from herself, and from her life. It's her way to feel connected and to feel accepted for who she is without ever having to face it head on. Except, of course, she will have to.
This is a story about sexuality and about love and acceptance -- all of the self, not of anyone else. Astrid struggles to figure out where she fits in, when the truth is, she just needs to keep a little bit of that love she's sharing for herself. It's also a story about people and individuals and how amazing it is we even exist. That that in and of itself is worth appreciating and loving. King deftly tells a story about how important it is to be yourself and understand and love yourself for who you are while also emphasizing how you do that through doing the same for other people. Because human existence and the diversity of experience is mind-blowing.
Amid Astrid's narrative are snippets of stories from the passengers in the planes above. These are the people to whom Astrid sends her love, and even though it doesn't necessarily seem like it, the passengers' stories all fit perfectly with her own struggle. Likewise, the plane metaphor in and of itself was brilliant without being over the top. We're all our own pilots but we all carry other people with us. Our destines are our own to control but we aren't alone.
There's plenty of philosophy in this one, and there's the voices in Astrid's head which operate a bit like the ants do in Lucky's mind in Everybody Sees the Ants. What I love about King's work is how internally focused it is, how much it's about the individual and what's going in in their minds. When Astrid breaks out though, she breaks out.
Readers won't walk away with a story about sexuality or a message about it, even though it's part of what the story's about. That's where this is a smart, smart book -- it's dense and meaty, but it's not done in a way that feels like it's a lesson nor in a way that feels condescending to readers. There aren't going to be a whole lot of labels tossed around or a real in-depth exploration of bisexuality or homosexuality. This is a story about being a person, not a label. Good readers will see that. I think defining this as simply a book about sexuality belittles the depths to which King aims to talk about the varied human experience.
King nails small town life like few are able to do. This book had a number of similarities to M Molly Backes's The Princesses of Iowa, down to the way the family operates, the mother-sister relationship, the facade and image needing to be presented to have status in a small town, the need for tolerance and respect for people, sexuality. These would be incredible read alikes not because Astrid and Paige are similar to one another, but instead, because the two of them are so different from one another. I also think this would be an interesting read alike to The Sky Always Hears Me But the Hills Don't Mind by Kirsten Cronn-Mills. Astrid is almost a perfect hybrid of Morgan and Paige and their situations and stories.
This book walks a fine line between being utterly sad and utterly hopeful and because of that, I held my breath many times, with the goal of not shedding a tear. But then I read the last couple of pages and knew what side of that sad/hopeful line the story fell and, well, I needed some kleenex. This is one of my favorite books this year, and I think it's a masterpiece of YA fiction. Ask the Passengers is contemporary YA done right.
Review copies received from the publisher. Ask the Passengers is available now.