(Goodreads summary here.)
I am honestly so tempted to give this book, like, 27 out of 5 stars. This is by far the best contemporary novel I’ve read, maybe ever. I may, however, be a little biased. This isn’t so much a review as it is a discussion on how important the book was to me.
I had heard mention of Tash Hearts Tolstoy before in the book community, but never thought it was something I’d be interested in. In addition to not being a huge contemporary fan in general, I saw the title and thought, “Tolstoy? Really? Thanks but no thanks, I’ll stick to Russian composers over Russian writers.” I’ve never read anything by him, and thought it would make this book hard or confusing to read (I was wrong. No Tolstoy knowledge inherently necessary). Upon reading the summary, I didn’t think it was something that would click with me.
In the end, I really have to thank the book blogging community for getting me to read this. It popped up on a ton of people’s Pride Month reading list, and as soon as I saw that it had an ace protagonist, I knew I had to read it. I’d also like to give a special thank you to Michelle from The Writing Hufflepuff for including the fact that it was available for free from Riveted Lit, at which point I promptly closed out of her post (sorry), signed up, and started reading.
Now, I’ve never really counted myself a fan of contemporary YA lit because I so rarely see myself in the characters. They’re too perfect, or they don’t respond to situations the way I would, or they’re too focused on something I don’t like. For some reason, I find it easier to put myself in the shoes of fantasy characters, in part because they’re so different and it’s fun to see the ways people act in worlds that aren’t our own and wonder what you would do in their place. I really only like contemporary works that focus on minorities or social issues, because I like seeing things from a different perspective.
Did I have issues with this book? Of course. In a lot of ways, I felt like it was trying to do too many things that made it kind of hard to figure out what it was trying to get at. But I can accept that because that’s what life is like. It’s not all about one thing, and it never will be. And I will take a complicated, detailed storyline over a simplistic and straight forward one any day. For me, though, none of this detracted from its importance and power.
From the very beginning, I saw myself in Tash. The way she talks about Tolstoy is the exact way I talk about Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (aka my dude Nik), my favorite composer (who happens to also be Russian). Now, I’m not filming guru, nor have I ever really had the desire to make a webseries inspired by a classic novel, but I do understand her appreciation and passion for what she loves. Tash’s dedication and imagination are exactly how I want mine to be with my writing, even though I tend to fall flat in terms of actually doing any writing.
Tash also has a complex relationship with her sister and family that I saw my own in. Like her and Klaudie, my older sister and I don’t always get along and we’re not as close as we could be. Sibling relationships are always tough for me to read about in contemporary YA because I find that they tend to go one of two ways. Either the character is best friends with their siblings and something happens that breaks their bond, or they hate each other with a burning passion only to make up in the end. I rarely see a middle ground, where they’re just kind of content to live alongside one another, but that’s what I saw with Tash and Klaudie. Sure, they have a major falling out, but it’s nothing that’s earth-shattering in the long run. It’s far closer to my own relationship with my sister than I think I’ve ever seen. It just adds another dimension to how I identified with Tash as a character.
Okay, here’s the part where I get personal. For as much as I identified with Tash and her hobbies and relationships with friends and family, it’s nothing compared to how much the representation of her being ace mattered to me. Ormsbee went out of her way to elaborate what it is like for Tash to be ace, which meant the world to me. Now, I’m an emotional reader and I cry over like every 10th book I read, but it is usually restricted to sad parts of the story. When I read about Tash’s description of realizing she was ace, I started crying and almost couldn’t stop. I can’t begin to elaborate on what it meant to me. What she described was exactly what I went through about 3 years ago. For me to see that represented, explicitly, on the page… I can’t articulate it.
I’ve always conceptually understood how important diverse representation is, but as a white, cis, middle-class female, there has never been a shortage of people who are like me in the media. I am so grateful that this book has a protagonist who is like me in ways I never thought could or would be represented. I never thought I’d open a book and see my own life and thoughts and fears reflected back at me so honestly. Ormsbee put into words what I’ve never really been able to. I know every person is different in their romantic and sexual preferences, even if they fall under the same general label, but Tash’s preferences are so thoroughly my own that I started joking with my friends that I should sue over my life being included in a book without my permission.
Sure, Tash’s asexuality is central to the story, but it isn’t what this book is about. Tash is more than her sexuality, even if it is an important part of her. Tash is humanized in a way that I was concerned wouldn’t happen when I started it. It’s a fear that Tash articulates in the book: that something is wrong with you because you’re asexual or that people may think there is something wrong with you because if it. There’s a sad stereotype that if you’re ace, you’re unfeeling or robotic or broken, but Tash is none of those things. She presented as so thoroughly real, with normal human emotions and faults. She’s different from everyone else, not because she’s ace, but because she’s her own unique person like the rest of us. And that fact, that Tash is so normal, made me feel more comfortable with my asexuality than I have in years.
And there it is–I actually said it. If this book has taught me anything, it’s that I shouldn’t be afraid to say it. I’m not weird or in need of fixing any more than every other person on this planet is. I hit a point when I started college two years ago where I was scared that I wouldn’t fit in with the college scene because I wasn’t looking for a relationship or someone to hook up with. I was worried I wouldn’t find friends who understood or were willing to learn to understand how I identified. I’m happy to say I was wrong on the latter front, although I’m still working on coming to terms with the fact that it’s alright that I don’t want to be a part of my school’s hook up culture. And that’s okay. I’m still learning and growing, just like everyone else. Now, thanks to Tash, I even have words to help explain my identity. And I am so incredibly thankful to have that.
Happy Pride Month, everyone. Remember: representation matters.
Thanks for reading.
Finally, a special shout-out to my ace readers. You are not alone. You are just right, and you are part of the splendid in this splendifying world. Keep being you.
-Kathryn Ormsbee, Tash Hearts Tolstoy Acknowledgments