***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: King didn't grow this book organically, she assembled it too methodically.
I listened to this as an audiobook, and the narrator (Devon Sorvari) did not do it any favors. Still, I tried to see the words as she spoke, rather than hear her flat performance, and I hope my review is fair and unbiased. Unfortunately, and unlike many respected reviewers, I found Ask the Passengers to be exceedingly underwhelming given King's talent. The messages are good and interesting and valuable: seeing a girl slowly come to terms with her sexuality, refusing to define herself according to society's labels, standing up for herself as an individual in her family, and rejecting the importance of other people's opinions.
The parents. I found the parents--particularly the mother, who is so integral to the plot--to be ridiculously one-dimensional. I'd go so far as to say they are caricatures. Astrid's dad becomes a little more real late in the game--beginning when he picks Astrid up from the bust at the bar (and then again from her expulsion at school), but his character still doesn't compare with the depth of Vera's dad in Please Ignore Vera Dietz, who is imperfect in such a rich way. Claire, the mom in ATP, is barely more than a clip-clopping cliche. Is it really believable that she'd do her hair and makeup and wear a suit everyday to work at home? Is she really so un-self-aware and simple-minded that when the girls joke about what going to college with their dad would be like she'd pout, "No one wants to go to college with me? I was fun in college, you know." The Mommy-and-Me nights out with Ellis were such a ham-handed way to show that she had a favorite, and didn't jibe with Claire's general agoraphobia. There's no way, with Claire's behavior and micro-control of everyone (and bestowing of her intimacy on her younger daughter rather than on her husband), that there wouldn't be marital discord, even if the dad soothes himself with pot--if anything the pot would aggravate their relationship. In fact, the relationship between the parents was murky and undefined, and yet they all ate dinner together every night and talked about their day. A friend claims that the dad is the most fleshed-out character in the novel. For me, his situation was itemized--controlling wife, patchy employment, a move from the big city where he might have "mattered" more in the work force, his using pot to dull his disappointment--and I know we were meant to understand him from that. But that's not the same as giving him a unique voice, and having him feel like a real, living person. He's just another example of my biggest problem with the book: we're told all the pieces we'll need, but none of it feels real and organic--there's no depth.
The passengers. The stories of the people on the planes are not moving and a bit dull because there's no time to develop their characters--the narration is too pat, a kind of shorthand, and thus we don't feel invested. It turns into "here's the gay man whose sister just died of cancer and he's facing his small town for the first time to go to her funeral." "Here's the guy who defies his mother to marry his non-Jewish girlfriend." (How ridiculous was the proposal scene where he addresses the rest of the passengers? Ugh. Like something from Nicholas Sparks. Also, that sort of public proposal, when the girl has already said no in private, smacks of misogyny and bullying to me. And then she stands up and says, "Yes!" and everyone claps. Really?) The presence of the aliens elude me. Someone smarter than me has to tell me what they represent in Astrid's growth.
Sending love. The shtick of Astrid lying on the picnic table sending her love to passengers is an interesting idea in principle, but somehow did not feel strong enough to carry a book (when she said "sending love to the passengers is getting old" I almost burst out laughing--because yes, yes it was). Or perhaps it was overused. It certainly became heavy-handed in my opinion. A couple of times Astrid actually tells us point blank (ruining the metaphor), "But I don't want to send my love away forever. I want it to be safe here."
Voice vs. message. It feels like King put all the ingredients in this book, but they're just ingredients--she didn't experiment, and mix it, and throw her first attempt out, and re-mix it, and let it ferment to see what would happen. She didn't grow this book, she assembled it. As an example, she wanted to give Astrid a unique voice...and it turned into a series of unique traits but not a real voice: Frank Socrates, philosophy, her "brain people," sending her love up to the planes. How is it that Vera had no "tics" like this (unless you count the alcoholism) but was so real--so strong, and believable, and wounded? I think it's because Vera told her story to King, whereas in this book King started with the message and then developed the character. King is not really in Astrid's skin.
My sense is that King knew the subject matter was important, and she wanted to write a book about it, but the plot she chose didn't move her. In other words, the political and cultural issues drove her to think of a story, not the other way around--not a story or character that was dying to get out of her brain, dragging the issues of sexuality and coming out along with her. For instance, Dee's aggressive sexuality is obviously an issue King wanted to cover--it's an issue among gay teens. It's hard to come out if you're lesbian with a low libido or a desire to go slowly, and many girls have imbalanced first relationships, with an experienced (sometimes older) lesbian who pushes a little too fast. But do you see? I felt King sticking that issue in there. Here we have Dee, too aggressive, yet Astrid loves her, we're not quite sure why, since their relationship is just a series of shrimp de-veining episodes, and now lo and behold Astrid teaches her to slow down at the end. Hunky Dorey, that's wrapped up.
What is Dee's personality? Was there a real relationship between her and Astrid? And yet Astrid's whole struggle revolves around being in love with her, this person we don't have a feel for. By contrast, Charlie was a similar sort of supporting character in VERA and he felt real to me.
Telling us what we need to know. Reading other reviews, I see that there are people who respect Amy King so much, they're willing to read information between the lines that's not there, or accept what's told to them. For instance, that there's a real relationship between Astrid and Dee. One person cites the moments when they're singing while they work, and making up their own language, laughing hilariously. When I read those passages I had a different thought: "King realized while editing her manuscript that these two have no relationship, so she stuck these meaningless, throwaway sections in to convince us." A writer can't establish a relationship with cute moments--like a movie montage of zany "togetherness" shots--real experiences have to happen to them, they have to respond to those experiences, and grow together. The talks while they were by the lake are the closest we get to shared moments, and most of those are ham handed "Let's get to know each other by talking about our favorite food!"
I guess I'm hammering away at this point, but I really feel like King is gifted enough that she knows what pieces need to be included to tell us a meaningful story, but she didn't do that story her usual justice. Everyone bought the pieces, as if they made up a lyrical whole, which they didn't. Would anyone have fussed over this book, or given it the L.A. Times prize, if it had been written by Robert Galbraith?! Well, actually perhaps, because the message of the book is important, regardless of the execution. The message of not putting people's sexuality "in a box" is valuable for young people to hear. (But speaking of which, in putting Astrid in a box, why did Astrid's friends and parents never suggest bisexuality? Even though it's a box, it's at least bigger box, and thinking about it would have allowed Astrid to comment more on boxes.)
This is the first time I've ever felt so differently about a book than so many reviewers I respect!
Miscellaneous. A small disappointment: this seems to be set near Mt. Pitts again, Vera Dietz's geographic region (someone even talks about playing a game against Wilson, which is a school mentioned in Vera, too), but I didn't get the same intimate feeling of "place" that I got with Vera.
1. Where did Justin disappear to for that week-plus? He just reappeared, with no commentary.
2. What was the point of Kim? Was it one spontaneous makeout session to give Astrid that 99.9% feeling of being gay that she needed? Why did she drive to the college to see Kim and then leave--how did that help the plot?
3. I may be wrong, but among the women hockey players on the Unity Valley team that Kristina listed when she was guessing the name of Astrid's girlfriend was Ellis's friend Jessie. So we knew Ellis was jogging regularly with a lesbian and was good friends with her. I thought King was going to exploit this friendship, to grow Ellis' personality, but nope. And come to think of it, was Ellis's homophobia supposed to be there to satisfy her mother? It seemed pretty narrow-minded for a hockey player who has developed camaraderie with her teammates. For a fair number of chapters I thought maybe Ellis was also gay, and hiding it from her mother by being openly bigoted.
4. The aliens are a dropped thread, aren't they? I believe they were dreams, because they seemed to appear whenever she fell asleep on the picnic table, so maybe they're not a real thread.
Walk-in freezer. Can I just say that you can't make out in a walk-in freezer? Trust me, you can only grab what you need and leave before you turn into Jack Nicholson in the last frame of The Shining.