Today’s “review” is on a novel nominated for the Cybils YA Fiction category and since we’re heading towards our next bimonthly theme this book serves as that nice transition as we ease into our upcoming theme launch.
At the end of each book, a reader is often asked: “Is it good?” and/or “Did you like it?” I read King’s novel in one sitting, set it down and contemplate on these two questions, only to find myself quite unsure.
Ask the Passenger doesn’t beg us to like it. What it does is propel our mind to think, to question the world, what we know, and who we are. I suppose that’s why I hesitate to answer. I wasn’t completely blown away, but I would still encourage people to read it. The book is a book of questions that allows its reader to think, to contemplate on the story and to consider a different view of our world.
The author presents this theme of questioning at the very first pages of her book.
In a story that tackles gender identity and the boxes we live in, these quotes guide Astrid Jones—our protagonist in the journey of knowing herself.
As I ruminate over the book in hopes to organize my thoughts for this review, I find myself thinking of the book in terms of elements. Rather than tell you what this book is about and what made it great, I’ll be focusing on a few elements that spoke to me as I read through this novel.
Is this real or is this fantasy? Nothing is as it seems. While Unity Valley or the Jones family aren’t Stepford Wives, one must realize that perfection isn’t the only façade we wear. I think of facades as armors or masks we wear to distract people from the truth. Claire Jones, Astrid’s mother works at home, but dresses like the stereotypical high powered woman in business—in suits and stilettos as she talks to clients, while at the same time trying to keep her ‘small town’ acceptance by bothering about what everyone would say about her daughter. Ellis keeps up a façade with her mother, trying to enjoy Mom and daughter outings, while secretly despising it. There’s Kristina and Justin, pretending to be a couple when they aren’t really one. Astrid does the same, keeping mum of what’s truly happening to her. The novel, I believe doesn’t necessarily say that facades are bad. In many ways, it tells us that all of us have some level of façade that we put up, and most of the time it is out of fear that we keep that facade. We feel safe hiding behind it. But what are we so scared of?
Ask the Passenger is written in Astrid’s voice. And as she ruminates about her experiences these little italicized “they” quotes are included.
“Kristina calls me at seven because she already heard Jeff asked me out.”
They say: Why would she snub a nice boy like Jeff Garnet? It’s not like she has other options.
They say: She’s just like her mother. Thinks she’s better than us.
They say: Astrid Jones was the one who took them out to that place, you know. Must be those city roots.
They say: If I was the Houcks, I’d rip her a new one.
They say: All normal teenagers are doing it. As long as they don’t come home with a disease or a baby, what’s the big deal?
They say: She hasn’t met the right boy, is all.
Them and they are the people in our heads. They’re the ones that force us to keep the façade. It’s the gossip line and the social pressure we live up to. We think the most open minded people are free from these judgments or opinions about who we are and who we like, when in fact that’s not necessarily true. We are cognitively designed to create some kind of rules/stereotypes. It’s our mind’s way of conserving energy. For some, the stereotypes can run from A to B and for others, their stereotypes may go from A to B to C to D.
Claire, Astrid’s mom, confronts her if she’s gay or not and the exchange exemplifies an open minded person who still holds a pre-conceived notion about being gay.
“Are you gay?” Mom asks
“I have no idea” I say.
Mom perks up. “So, we went from I’m not gay, I was just in a gay club to dance to I don’t know.”
“Right,” I say
“So does this mean yes?”
“No,” I say. “It means I don’t know. It’s really not as easy as you’re making it.”
“Don’t give me that,” Mom says.
“It’s not a choice. Either you’re born gay or you’re not born gay,” she says.
“While I appreciate your strict categorization and policies of gayness, I can’t say that I know one way or the other. So, logic tells me that if I was born gay, then I should know that I am gay, which means, by your rules, no. I am not gay. Because I don’t know.”
Astrid’s mom wanted this ready answer. Her understanding of gender identity was a simple matter of being born with it or not. This too, is a stereotype. The journey towards discovering our gender identity isn’t necessarily as clear cut for everyone. No two experiences are exactly the same. What we know of things may not necessarily be completely accurate. There is always room for questions. There will always be outliers. We’re just too programmed to live up to the norm.
“Because she (Dee) knows. And I don’t know.”
In essence this novel is about knowing ourselves—of defining who we are in this great big world. While the protagonist does this in definition primarily of her gender and preference, I also think it dabbles on who she is as a person. Astrid’s coming out story is interesting as the focus wasn’t completely about coming out to her friends or family, it was about “coming out” to herself. Discovering who we are and accepting that is the hardest thing any person can do. It doesn’t have to be an issue of gender. It could be in accepting our illness/disease, accepting our socio-economic status or our imperfections. Coming to terms with ourselves is a frightening experience but a necessary journey towards maturation. But self-definition or self knowledge requires introspection. It requires us to ask relevant questions, to see ourselves in the context of the environment we move in and outside of it. And it is this idea that frames the novel, Ask the Passenger. The book, written in Astrid’s perspective renders itself easily to introspection. The reader gets to read Astrid’s thoughts as she struggles to figure out who she is. There’s a constant play of acceptance and denial. It is almost like a dance where the reader gets first-row seats to the protagonist’s uncertainty. Astrid lies on her back on top of a picnic table, watches planes, throws her love at a passenger alongside her own questions.
I ask the passenger:
Am I really gay? What do I do now?
Is it okay to lie in order to be happy?
Where are you going? Can I come with you? Maybe where you’re going, I could finally feel at home.
Isn’t it enough to be in love with Dee’s amazing eyes and the smell of her hair? Isn’t it enough that she thinks I’m funny? That we have fun when we mess around at work? Why does everything come with a strict definition? Who made all these boxes?
Astrid throws different questions up to those passengers she sends love to and the author indirectly answers or ruminates over these questions via the short stories of these passengers. I would not know the true intention of the writer in mixing in these brief passenger stories into the book. I can only guess. I think of them as the bigger world, as those other people who share similar aches, pains and worries. Their problems come in different packages, some are in a relationship, some are recovering from some addiction, and some are aimless, but their questions may be one and the same. Our differences do not spare us from our life questions.
Astrid doesn’t get answers from these passengers, reiterating the idea that the questions matter more than the answers. If we keep on asking, we’ll find our answers, our truth. Self-discovery is one of those journeys that fill us up with questions, uncertainty and anxiety. It’s a journey we need to take on our own, for the answers can never come from outside, it must come from within.
This ‘review’ is long enough. There are other things worth exploring and talking about in this post, but I have to restrain myself. The novel offers us various relationships worth exploring from friendships, student-teacher to family. I generally focused on one’s relationship with oneself. Maybe because this is something that’s closer to home. While I’m not Astrid, in some ways I knew what the struggle was.
Boxes, labels and stereotypes are things I’ve long had to battle with. The only true label I allow myself to subscribe to is my name. As Astrid discovers who she is, she doesn’t simply carry around this ready-made label. She uses it for convenience, to simplify things for her friends and family, but it isn’t who she necessarily is. Who she is, is Astrid and I get her. We are people, complex individuals. We can like Anime and easily be called Otaku. We can like computer and be called geeks, but none of these labels encompass who we are and the various combinations that come with a label. We can be Otaku, alternative rockers with a penchant for interior design. We can be fashionable computer geeks with a love for Broadway.
What we take from this novel isn’t a battle cry but a truth. We discover the value of knowing one’s self, of questioning everything and discovering love (or compassion). We, in the greater sense, are all in the same boat—seeking love (and acceptance) in a world that constantly pressures us to define ourselves with ready made labels.
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