Thursday, April 25, 2013

Ask the Passengers

Ask the Passengers by A.S. King

Astrid Jones desperately wants to confide in someone, but her mother's pushiness and her father's lack of interest tell her they're the last people she can trust. Instead, Astrid spends hours lying on the backyard picnic table watching airplanes fly overhead. She doesn't know the passengers inside, but they're the only people who won't judge her when she asks them her most personal questions . . . like what it means that she's falling in love with a girl.

As her secret relationship becomes more intense and her friends demand answers, Astrid has nowhere left to turn. She can't share the truth with anyone except the people at thirty thousand feet, and they don't even know she's there. But little does Astrid know just how much even the tiniest connection will affect these strangers' lives--and her own--for the better.
-Plot summary borrowed from Goodreads

I was all set to love this book, and for the first few chapters I did. It is a mostly uplifting read, and it does have a lot going for it, but ultimately I think it is flawed, and just not what it could have been. Let's break it down by pros and cons. 

-It's compelling. I read it in one day, completely buying into Astrid's story and narrative voice.
-The tone is well-balanced, moving believably from tense, emotional drama to humor to pathos and back again
-King addressed bullying, specifically of GLBTQ teens, in very direct terms. Truly awful, hateful things are said to/about Astrid and her friends, and King does a good job of showing what happens when people turn a blind eye to such reprehensible behavior. Also, bonus points for showing that teachers can be at least as gossipy and negative as their students.
-Astrid's inner conflict, questions and development ring true, and she gets major props from me for standing up for herself in the face of pressure and prejudice
-There is an emphasis on the need people have for respect, privacy, and space. Bonus points for King emphasizing that gay relationships are no different from straight relationships, and that it is problematic for people to assume it's all about sex
-I liked the idea of Astrid "sending love" to plane passengers, and their vignettes served to give the story a sort of all ages appeal, and to remind readers that everyone has their own unique set of emotional challenges, no matter their age, gender, background or circumstances
-Astrid's family is complicated, flawed, and fascinating. There are dynamics here I've seen in real families, and watching the four of them interact with each other was one of the most interesting things about the book.

That all sounds great, yeah? And those parts are. Unfortunately, the book has some issues that detract from all that a bit.

-Several relationships are problematic to me. Astrid's girlfriend Dee pressures her to move more quickly than Astrid is comfortable with- and Astrid does speak up. All well and good. But Astrid goes from feeling uncomfortable with this and unsure if she really likes Dee to being madly in love. Umm... k... Something similar happens with Astrid's friends. In one chapter it seems as though they have had a major falling out, and in the last it seems as though things are perfectly normal. 
-Astrid makes everything about her. Sure she's the main character, but even allowing for that conceit it gets old fast. Nothing is ever her fault (in her eyes), all the other characters need to take things at her speed when she says so, and god help them if they move too fast or slow for her. She can be preachy, and while she does develop in some ways (comes to terms with her own sexuality), she doesn't in others (keep an open mind, act more generously, give back). Here's an example of what I mean by missed opportunities- towards the end of the book when Astrid is resolving her baggage, she is portraying Socrates for her humanities class, going around the school and militantly debating people. Ok, great, if pushy. However, she had previously remarked that it was only "other, possibly fictional schools" that had GLBTQ clubs. I couldn't help thinking that it would have been better for her to work on starting one of these, especially since her humanities teacher, one of the only Allies she mentions, would have been the perfect faculty advisor. Maybe that's a weird quibble to have, but it would have been nice to see Astrid stepping up to help others instead of making herself feel smart. 
-Speaking of the school, and the students.... Other than Astrid and her friends, everyone seems to be a small-minded hateneck in this town. Worse, they're all decades old stereotypes. The jocks are oversexed, meat-headed bullies. The cheerleaders are superficial, snipey gossips. Where's the complexity? The acknowledgement that high school is tough all around, and that while that obviously does not excuse bullying, it goes partway toward explaining it? I'd have been much happier with some shades of grey, some discussion of why kids lash out at each other, and what can be done to improve things. Instead we get Astrid deciding to tune out the unpleasantness, without any change or growth.

Overall this was an absorbing read with plenty of realistic teen angst and some moving relationships, but it's weighed down by stereotypes and missed opportunities. I think Emily M. Danforth did a far better and more nuanced job of portraying a girl in a conservative small town questioning her sexuality in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and for a better look at issues of high school cliques and bullying I'd recommend Before I Fall and The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth.


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