Thanks for giving me the opportunity to take another look at Ask the Passengers and to respond to your friend’s criticisms. On the whole, I don’t agree with the criticisms, although I suppose each one has a kernel of reality to it. So let’s go through them:
1) assumptions about the characters’ relationships: I am perfectly willing to accept Kristina and Astrid’s relationship without a lot of “show.” They’ve known one another since they were ten, and they have that easy familiarity that works for me. I see the point more with Astrid and Dee, but here again, it felt real to me. I think that a big piece of Astrid’s attraction to Dee was the sexual piece. This felt very accurately teenaged to me: Astrid is strongly attracted to Dee, she’s excited about the whole idea of who Dee is, and her sexual attraction to her, but at the same time, she wants to slow things down and know more about her. They do have interactions–singing in the kitchen, making up their own language, etc.–that shows there’s more of a connection there. Frankly, I don’t believe this is a relationship that, in real life, would last more than a few months, but it still feels real for what it is. I remember high school relationships like this, that were more about the excitement and the moment than real, lasting friendship.
2) “false starts’: I don’t get this criticism at all. Josh and Kristina are central to the book, in that they are the ones who get Astrid to Atlantis, which is what breaks open the plot. Also, I disagree that either Kristina or Josh disappears from the story. Kristina is always part of it–even when her part of it is that she has essentially abandoned Astrid and then, it turns out, lied about her. Josh is always there mainly as a companion to Kristina, and not as a direct friend to Astrid, so that also didn’t bother me (and he does show up again at the end).
3) Astrid’s parents: Yes, Astrid’s dad is on her side and on his wife’s side. Yes, sometimes he can stand up to his wife, and sometimes not. People aren’t black and white. Of course, he has loyalties to both. Obviously–from the pot smoking and the dead-end job–he is having issues in his own life that affect how he interacts with his wife. He’s struggling, and it shows. And Astrid’s mother–well, I disagree that Astrid says “everything’s OK now” at the end. Claire is also struggling, and Astrid begins to see that by the end, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be more problems. She says of her mother, after she introduces Dee, “Mom could have been nicer.” Now, that’s fairly mild, compared to what she’s been saying about her mother, but in the context–Astrid is somewhat euphoric over being out and being together with Dee, Mom has been confronted about her hypocrisy and is at least trying to make an effort–it’s not inconsistent. The book isn’t about the parents, it’s about how Astrid sees her parents and relates with them, and so much of that is dependent on how Astrid is feeling at the moment (see earlier portions, even when Claire is behaving really badly, and Astrid tries to send her love anyway). And by the end, she is feeling good about herself, so she is willing to give her parents more of a pass.
4) Socrates project: Well, I went to a real public high school with real cliques and mean girls, and I found Astrid’s participation in the Socrates project completely plausible. Because it comes in the context of an AP Humanities class, which is its own rarefied atmosphere. This is something that is a tradition in the school, so Astrid has that comfort zone, and when she puts on the toga, she lets herself get outside of herself and become another character, adding to the comfort. Plus, she knows that what she is learning about philosophy gives her an edge–she’s starting to see how it all works together, and how other people don’t get it. And the thing is that Aimee and the others are really just bullies, and bullies do sometimes fade away when confronted publicly. Now, I’m not saying that in real life, Aimee might not try to get back at Astrid in some nasty way, but that’s outside of the novel’s confines, so I’m willing to let it go.
5) Boxes. Okay, I didn’t notice the speech you refer to either time I read it, and I can’t find it now. When does Astrid say we need boxes to help define ourselves? So I can’t answer this one. You’ll have to give me specifics. She does say, on page 282, “Anything can be true or false if you turn it upside down.” So even if she did say that maybe we need boxes, I could read it as her continuing to think and analyze and question–which is the whole point of the book! Therefore, I guess I do have an answer, and it’s that, no, I don’t have a problem with that.
So, in summary, I don’t think Ask the Passengers was inconsistent at all. I think everything in it was focused on that first word in the title: Ask. Question. Examine. Turn things upside down. Everything that happened was in service to that idea. The book stands up in my mind to the criticisms as you raised them, and I still think it is one of the best books of the year.
Any thoughts from you or from our readers?