So much of young adult literature depicts the LGBTQIA+ coming out story as some terrible and tragic endeavor, so when I saw that A.S. King’s “Ask the Passengers” was a story of discovering sexuality, I was worried it would be the same. However, “Ask the Passengers” is a novel that feels so real, both in the way that it depicts coming out and in all the other themes the story explores. It is truly an emotional, but valuable read.
The story features a seventeen-year-old heroine, Astrid Jones, a girl who is full of love. It’s a love that she doesn’t share with many people immediately around her, not because she doesn’t want to, but because she feels as though she can’t.
Astrid doesn’t feel like she really fits in with anybody in her life. Her mother and sister detest her. Her dad only ever smokes pot. Her best friend, Kristina, and girlfriend, Dee, are all helping her live a lie. Astrid thinks the problem is her town, Unity Valley, a place where reputation and rumors matter most. Yet Astrid’s actual problem is the fact that she’s a pushover, which she eventually comes to learn and change.
Despite her flaws, King successfully allows Astrid to be someone the audience can root for. As I previously said, she’s full of love, and even though she doesn’t feel like she can give it to the people in her life, she instead chooses to send it to passengers on planes in the sky. She lays on picnic tables, wherever they may be, for hours at a time, sending love to total strangers. Sometimes they send it back, in the snapshot scenes King adds in from their point of view.
When she’s not completely immersed in staring at the sky, she’s instead possessed by philosophy. Her humanities class, taught by a teacher who is rumored to be lesbian, is one of Astrid’s only safe spaces. She consistently brings up and thinks about the theories of philosophers like Zeno and Socrates and even creates an imaginary version of Socrates, named Frank, to follow her around and offer her advice when she needs it most. She’s not a perfect person, but she’s self-aware, which makes her that much easier to love.
The actual plot of “Ask the Passengers,” while about sexuality, isn’t the usual coming-out story at all. For the better half of the story, Astrid isn’t even certain she’s gay. She knows she loves her girlfriend, and that in itself confuses her. She has so many questions and terrors, which is a story that seems to typically go untold. It’s authentic and sensitively approached, which marks this novel as one that is so extraordinary.
Beyond this, “Ask the Passengers,” isn’t just a journey of sexuality. It’s a story of a broken family, rocky relationships and a battle over the importance of reputation. It highlights racism and homophobia in a close-minded small town and confronts the hypocrisy of even the people Astrid cares for the most. These themes are expressed in relatable ways, which makes them hit even harder.
One of the harder parts to love in this story are the few morally ambiguous plot lines that shouldn’t be so ambiguous at all. For instance, there are a few scenes set early on in the book where Astrid’s girlfriend, Dee, refuses to respect her sexual boundaries. Astrid is quite communicative about wanting to take the relationship slow, especially in the physical aspects. However, Dee pushes these boundaries constantly, putting her hands in places Astrid doesn’t want her to, and going too far and too fast, without consent.
About a third of the way through the book, Astrid seriously confronts Dee about how she feels violated, and Dee still doesn’t take it well. They fight and break up but are quickly repaired when Dee sends a text to Astrid asking that she use a safe word, “Abracadabra,” for when she’s ready to go all the way. It seems like a haphazard redemption arc for a topic that should have been handled more seriously. It makes Dee hard to like, which takes away from some of the larger meanings in the story.
However, as terrible as some of the moral ambiguity seems, it all still speaks to the overarching theme of the book and Astrid’s chosen paradox for her end-of-year philosophy project: “Nobody’s perfect.” There’s not a single character in the story that hasn’t done something wrong, even Astrid, which makes most of the characters easy to appreciate.
“Ask the Passengers” is an eloquent and quizzical exploration of what perfection is and how it can even be achieved and while the characters in this story prove that achieving perfection is impossible, King’s “Ask the Passengers” comes pretty close.