Ask the Passengers - 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 she imagines flying over her 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.

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Teenager Astrid Jones is in quite an emotional pickle right at this moment in her life. The family had to be all uprooted and relocated to small town New England because Astrid's mother is struggling with some sort of intense depression that affects her ability to work in a traditional workplace setting -- social anxiety? depression? agorophobia? a specific trauma that broke her? To be honest, the mother's situation is not explained in very much depth so I'm not entirely sure, but it's definitely put a strain on the family as a whole.

 

Then there's stoner dad constantly getting baked when nobody's looking but then acting like that's totally not what he's doing... only Astrid's mother seems to accept the act. 

 

Astrid herself is struggling in the normal "who am I and what are all these emotions all of a sudden?" teenage sense but between these two parents who can she turn to? She's muddling through a period of confused sexuality as she navigates her first relationship with a female co-worker but a solid, non-judgmental support system seems to be quite the unicorn in small-town, gossip-y UNITY (seriously, that's the name of the town here, of all things! lol), Pennsylvania. 

 

As a way to cope and to channel her inner pain and confusion into something good, she develops a two part system. Her days are spent studying philosophy (even creating a sort of imaginary friend out of Socrates, naming him "Frank" and imagining him next to her during her toughest moments), then spends evenings laying in the backyard waiting for planes to fly over her house. Once she spots one, she sends loving thoughts or questions up to the passengers, not expecting a response of course... but every so often she swears she can feel something bounce back. It's then that the story cuts to a passenger on one of these flights. The perspective switches from Astrid's first person voice to that of the passenger and we see the thin filament of thought that links them to Astrid.

 

When joining these stories, King uses just the lightest touch of magical realism. Their stories, whether it's through their inner thoughts or conversations with others, hint at the possibility that maybe Astrid's kind thoughts and questions are, in fact, somehow subconsciously reaching them and affecting their lives in the most subtle of ways, influencing their personal narratives. 

 

It seems impossible these days to be a Booktuber and not hear the name A.S. King come up at least once in awhile and I feel like this one got especially hyped when it first came out. Finally trying out King's work for myself, I did end up enjoying this story but at the same time was a little underwhelmed. The plot itself had a slow start for me but it did pick up as I progressed, but the writing was a little on the bland side. Or maybe it was the plot that was not edgy enough but something about this book felt like there was an opportunity to really take these themes somewhere big but in the end we just stay in the safe zone. 

 

That said, I did enjoy the characters (I just wasn't gut-wrenchingly invested in them) and I applaud King for the themes that were addressed here -- the concept of turning pain into thoughts of love for others, the ridiculousness of homophobia and the damage it causes when people have to keep the truth of their soul locked up to feel safe in this world, the pain of experiencing friends who will throw you under the bus, as the saying goes, to keep their own secrets safe from seeing the light of day. I even liked how the interludes of the passenger stories illustrate the idea that we're all maybe just a little more connected to each other than we realize. All super important topics to incorporate into a novel, I just wish they would've been delved into even more. 

 

* For those who wish to use this book as a book club pick, a reading discussion guide is included in the back of the book.