Astrid Jones doesn't know how to feel about her life, so she sends her love to passengers in the airplanes that fly over her house. They're lucky because they have places to be, while she's stuck in Unity Valley. Her mom is a control freak, her dad is an escapist stoner, her sister inhabits a different sphere of small town girl acceptance. Her social life consists of tagging along with her more popular friends, Kristina and Justin, on their sometimes dates. Oh, and keeping their secret: they're gay, the dating is all an act to fend off the narrow minded views of their peers.
She has a secret of her own. She might be gay too.
What sounds like a standard sexual awakening/coming of age novel is...actually that. But with an A.S. King style flair of some supernatural-maybe-infused commentary, scads of familial dysfunctional dynamics! The part that this is a story that's really about Astrid's feelings about herself and the whole gay crisis is just sort of an obvious triggering point. So if you pick this up on a LBGTQ series expecting Annie On My Mind
just know that the relationship is prominent, but not the centerpiece of the story. And you know what? I really, really loved that about the book.
Don't get me wrong. I'm a sucker for romances where the teens fall in love against all odds and that becomes their incentive to be true about themselves. But this one has it backwards. Astrid Jones, through the help of an imaginary Socrates and a lot of mistakes, finds the strength to be true about herself and then
maybe we can talk on if she gets the girl. She is pressured by her girlfriend, pressured by her friends, pressured by the rumor gossiping in town to come out, to label herself, and she resists (and, yes, denies even when she knows better) it until she can sort the rest of herself out first. That is the story A.S. King tells best, and that is the strongest aspect of the book that practically beans you in the head since the first page has "Know thyself" and "Question everything" on it. And this is really a kind of questioning that teens/adults/children/house plants/aliens need too, because what happens if something about you doesn't fit by preconceived notions? Then how would you be so sure it's just one thing about you and not possibly everything
Astrid's voice, her authenticity, is the unquestionable draw of this story. She has a wry kind of humor that she usually keeps to herself but readers have the privilege of seeing, and sometimes it's less of a privilege and more of a "oh god why" like her comparison to a hangover with a den of raccoons dysentery all over her head. She's introverted, sometimes painfully aware of it, and also so incredibly lost, which you see in glimpses and her own self-questioning doubts.
"Dee is dancing in place to imaginary music, making a bass sound deep in her throat. I admit I'm excited to go out to Atlantis again. An hour ago, I wasn't going anywhere tonight. I think: Maybe it's okay that people talk you into things. Maybe if they didn't, you'd never go anywhere.
Some people might be turned off with the interludes of the plane passengers, where Astrid sends love and questions about her life to the plane passengers and some of them respond in vignettes about their life, love, disappointments. I'll admit there were a few that were not as stirringly poignant as Astrid's struggles or didn't connect as well to the narrative as I wanted. But while the giving love to strangers in planes sounds a little too twee, almost like you're expecting Haley Williams to start chiming in on the vocals about wishing on airplanes (and please don't tell me I'm not the only one hearing that song throughout the whole novel
). You sort of realize as it goes on that it is more for Astrid's sake than the strangers, even though they benefit from this cosmic outpouring of love in weird and indefinite ways. It is less about a girl who just has so much love to give and it's precious, and it's more about a girl who really had no idea what to do about love and felt like the only safe way she could give love was through a silent communication with a few thousand feet between her and the people she was sending her love to. And when I got to the end and read that's exactly what A.S. King had planned, I had a "Eureka!" moment myself. Which, yeah, wrong philosopher but any novel that can punch me simultaneously in the emotional and realizational cortex of my brain deserves ovation.
As for it being an Issues novel, it is and it isn't. It's sad that simply having a character dealing with the confusion over being gay still counts as an Issue now, but it does focus on that. However, it's much stronger simply as a novel that inhabits a time and place with these characters and issues occur. In this way, I believe it. In an issue novel I would question the lack of bisexuality mention, but in this particular one I don't because Astrid seems barely aware of sexuality at first and personally doesn't have enough grounding to claim she likes guys, not enough experience to know for sure if she likes girls at the start, and ergo she works from nothing. As for the surrounding characters? Everyone around her who she talks to about it is either 1. already stunningly ignorant about sexuality anyway, 2. kind of burned by the whole thing Like Dee's dismissive "she picked the wrong side" about an old girlfriend who dated her then another guy, or 3. very
stoned. I think it's definitely a conversation that should occur and be more transparent in YA literature, but I'd rather A.S. King just wrote another awesome story where somebody was bisexual then have to fit it in when so many other things were happening.
Conclusion: I loved this story, even though it wasn't perfect. Because it wasn't trying to be, and in fact was telling me that nobody's perfect in bright neon sign letters. In a toga. There really have been few books that so embrace their imperfections that made me love it all the more. You may come out of it thinking it was great, thinking it was nice even though there were some serious moments where you wanted to facepalm (like I did), or simply moments where you felt jostled and confused but kept going to see the end, and even if this book doesn't rock your world there's love in it all the same.