Review: Ask the Passengers by A. S. King
A. S. King is the only author I've reviewed twice on here (unless you count the two-books-in-one review of Kate Seredy's classic children's books), and here I am about to write a third review of her work. This is because her books are so thought-provoking and unusual. When I finish one of her books, it's not just "I liked it, " or "I didn't like it,"--I have things to SAY. I wish I could read them with a book club and discuss.
Consider yourselves my book club.
Ask the Passengers is, at first glance, a book about a girl coming to terms with being gay. But just as "Brokeback Mountain" was really about homophobia in our culture, not about "gay cowboys," this book is more about consent and labeling in our culture than it is about "gay teenagers."
First, consent. How I wish my teenaged self could have read this book in which our protagonist defends her right to hold off on sex, even with someone she's sexually attracted to and emotionally attached to. And not because of any religious hang-ups, either. She just doesn't want to be pressured. It's no one time deal, either. Much of the book revolves around Astrid's complicated feelings around not wanting unasked-for touch from the boys she's dated OR constant pestering to take it further from the girl she's smitten with. In my teens and twenties, it felt like to kiss a boy was to force myself into a situation where I would either have to have sex, or vigorously refuse to have sex. What if I just wanted to kiss someone? One reason I fell so hard for my husband was his ability to convey his strong physical attraction to me while still making it clear that if I wanted to take things slow, there would be no pressure to speed it up, and also no threat of losing his interest.
Astrid is so aware of her boundaries. All the same, she breaks them at times, feeling socially obligated to give her fake, but infatuated, date a kiss on the cheek and tolerate him groping at her. What's so unique about her in teen literature is that she also has boundaries with the person she has a crush on. Dee is mystified, since her philosophy seems to be "If it feels good, do it!" but she likes Astrid enough to at first "wait," and then eventually to drop the whole pursued/pursuer dynamic and actually enjoy Astrid without prioritizing sex as the main point of the relationship. This growth on her part, as well as Astrid's developing ability to express what she wants and needs, is so much richer and more subtle than what usually passes for character development in YA lit.
Next, questioning. There is a painful conversation between Astrid and her parents after she's busted for being underage at a gay bar. They want to know--is she gay? And she keeps telling them she DOESN'T KNOW. They take this as some sort of defiance wrapped with denial buried in obstinate refusal to communicate. But it's her real answer. She likes a girl. She wasn't expecting to like a girl. Does this make her gay? Bisexual? Person-specific sexual? She's only seventeen, a virgin, someone who feels judged and out of place in her small town. How the hell is she supposed to slap a label on herself when she is still getting to know herself? And why is she expected to?
I haven't read a ton of GLQBT literature, but I have read some, and I've never seen this take before. It's not about coming out or accepting yourself. It's about the way society wants to KNOW and LABEL, and how strange this compulsion is. As a straight, cis-gendered woman, I've never had too think too deeply about what sexuality box I fit in, much less whether the box actually exists, or is just some sort of cultural construct. Teenaged Astrid is asking questions of herself and her society that I've never thought to ask.
I do wonder about A. S. King's parents. She writes a lot of truly crappy moms in particular, and Astrid's is no exception.
I wasn't quite as caught up and emotionally moved by this book as I was by Everybody Sees the Ants, Glory O'Brien's History of the Future, or Reality Boy. Astrid is taking a philosophy class and imagines Socrates into situations when she feels lost, and this book has a definite philosophical, as opposed to emotional, or even narrative, force. Still, Astrid's voice is as clear and compelling as any of King's other narrators, and that hint of magical realism is always enchanting as well.
3.5 stars, rounded up to 4 on Goodreads.