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When you send your “love” and thoughts out to the riders of an airplane flying above your head, can the passengers feel it? Does it make a difference to them? Does unconditional love exist? Can you love a girl and not be a lesbian? If she loves you back, are you then a lesbian? So far, all seventeen-year-old Astrid Jones knows is sending her “love” to the airplanes feels like freedom. “It’s love without strings. It’s ideal.” Loving someone like Dee doesn’t feel like that.
Astrid is lonely, a fact she regularly ingests with her daily doses of Rolaids, despite not being alone. After all, her New York dress-for-success, high-heel-wearing mother, Claire, rarely ever leaves the house in Unity Valley and is always available to detail Astrid’s failings—along with those of her underemployed pot-smoking father. Her hockey-playing, ultra-feminine sister, Ellis, is particularly adept at providing gossip from their high school that the family might not otherwise know. When Kristina, Astrid’s best friend—who has a personal text-messaging relationship with Claire—is added to the mix, it is no wonder Astrid only shares her thoughts with unknown people flying overhead.
But Astrid is not unlike every other teenage girl—she has her own life, one that produces questions and thoughts. A life where she cleans shrimp and kisses Dee in the freezer at her weekend job. Where Kristina and her supposed boyfriend are both closeted, a secret Astrid has kept for years. A life that has become too big and complicated to categorize or put in a box.
In Ask the Passengers (Little, Brown and Company), author A.S. King takes the skeletal components of a young adult lesbian coming-out novel and applies metaphysical, philosophical, psychological, sociological and existential layers that infuse the flesh with outstanding writing. What would have been an important contribution to young adult fiction, has become a literary work noted for its exceptional depth, breadth and quality.
King’s brilliantly crafted characters allow the storyline to move and develop in an effortless manner. Within the first few paragraphs, Astrid’s inner conflicts, flaws, and motivations begin to unravel. The reader feels something for the protagonist and simply wants to know more. In less than fifty pages, Unity Valley is revealed as a key character. By relating Astrid’s emotional life to the community, King brings a dynamic new entity into the narrative. The irony of the town name highlights the actions of its inhabitants—as Astrid’s character is further expanded, the town begins to obtain a voice as well. Every character is made real through the exploration of his/her unique perspective.
However, there are far more questions raised for the characters than there are answers—that in itself is reflective of being a young adulthood. Ask the Passengers forces readers to look beyond the twenty-two minute happily-ever-after media representations of being a teen, plunging them into a reality that begs the question: What does this all mean and how will I ever figure it out? Therefore, the thematic focus is diffused, resulting in a slower-paced literary narrative that may discomfit some readers. But Ask the Passengers—despite the inadequacy of its title—is more than a read; it is novel worth savoring, discussing and re-reading.
According to King’s website, she does not “discuss politics or religion.” Nor does she “write ‘gay’ books, ‘bully’ books or ‘death’ books.” Yet readers should question her plaintive statement: “I write books.” In her short publishing career, the honors, awards and accolades garnered by King’s young adult novels, as well as the diversity of sources of those acknowledgements, attest to her abilities as an author. A.S. King does more than write books; she writes books worth reading.
Ask the Passengers
By A. S. King
Little, Brown and Company
Hardcover, 9780316194686, 293 pp.