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Review: Ask the Passengers by A.S. King

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Never has a book connected with me as immediately and intensely as A.S. King’s Ask the Passengers. I read the book in two sittings, which could have been one if I hadn’t stopped around page 30 for lunch. The book’s prosaic sensibilities are almost perfectly in line with mine; most books I read, there will be many sentences that I would have preferred a different way. In Passengers, there was only one moment like that, and that alone endears this book to my heart. But of course there are more reasons than that.

Ask the Passengers is told from the perspective of Astrid Jones, a 17-year-old in a complicated point in her life. She’s unsure about her sexuality, which is complicated by her secret romance with a girl; her best (and seemingly only) friend, Kristina, is the homecoming queen, dating the football star Justin, and Astrid is the only one at school who knows the relationship is fake; her relationship with her mother and sister is strained, and she feels far away from her dad since he fell heavy into marijuana. Astrid feels held back by all the problems in her life, and so she lies on the picnic table in her backyard and looks up at the planes flying overhead, sending her love to the passengers within and asking them questions. Throughout the book the reader is shown short passages from the passengers receiving Astrid’s projections, each one touching and meaningful. It’s too brilliant to call a gimmick, and the final one, in conjunction with the ending, left me in tears.

It would be a spoiler to delve any more into the plot, as it largely exists to further Astrid’s journey of self-understanding. It’s a beautiful story, masterfully told, with a protagonist whom I could not only readily empathize with, but sometimes even relate to, which is rare for me. The book is in first person (and present tense, if that’s a deal breaker for you; me, I didn’t consciously notice until page 17), and A.S. King succeeds in what I think most first person writers fail at: the book wholeheartedly reads like it was written by its protagonist. Astrid’s quiet, restrained, and yet impulsive personality is effectively communicated by the prose which still manages to read like it was written by a professional. The dialogue, too, effectively reflects each speaker; it is abundantly clear that A.S. King is an experienced writer.

It’s harder to gush than to criticize, and so this review comes out fairly light, but I did have two issues with Ask the Passengers. First was Astrid’s self-deprecatingly calling herself an “asexual sea sponge” at one point in the book, which struck me as ignorantly harmful to the real asexual identification, both by erasing it (by equating asexuality in humans with inhumanity) and by stigmatizing it (for the same reasons). The book in general seems to ignore the possibility of identification outside of gay or straight, which I think is a failing. The second issue I had was with Donna and Chad, the secret partners of Kristina and Justin, respectively. They hardly existed as characters (I’m not sure Chad even had a line), and as Kristina and Justin’s world is an important aspect of Astrid’s life, failing to flesh out an important part of it was disappointing to me. Even a single scene that establishes clear personalities for Donna and Chad would have done a lot to bring them up to the same vibrancy as the rest of the book’s characters, and would reveal an amount about Kristina and Justin at the same time. Still, these are minor complaints in a largely perfect book.

Verdict

Ask the Passengers, in my opinion, is a minor masterpiece. It might not say something groundbreaking about the world, it may not have left me feeling like a particularly changed person, but it tells its story so incredibly beautifully and has such wonderful messages of love that I would be remiss not to recommend it to everybody. I’ve never sat down and made a list of my top five or ten books, but Passengers would undoubtedly be on it.