#IMWAYR (7/27/2020): Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee
Before we get started, I wanted to mention that I put together a post showcasing several virtual and free panels at San Diego Comic-Con 2020 featuring authors such as Shannon Messenger and Raina Telgemeier! Many of them have already happened, but you can watch many of them after-the-fact by going to my post and clicking the "watch it here" link.
For #IMWAYR, I am reviewing Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee. This review is more of a "rantview," so be warned!
A word of caution to any young readers: this book is a YA (young adult) novel, not an MG (middle grade) novel and contains some mature content.
Tash Hearts Tolstoy tells the story of high school junior Natasha "Tash" (pronounced tawsh) Zelenka. Tash has two loves: film and Leo Tolstoy's books, and she decides to combine the two by working with her best friend Jacklyn "Jack" Harlow on a YouTube web series based on Anna Karenina, which they call Unhappy Families. The web series has a small but devoted fandom, but when a popular YouTuber mentions it on her own channel, Unhappy Families suddenly blows up in popularity. Besides having to wrangle a finicky cast, Tash (and to a lesser extent, Jack) now has to deal with the highs (Tumblr GIFs, hashtags, and the nomination for a Golden Tuba Award) and lows (bitter, critical reviews online) of online popularity. In the midst of all this, Tash is also dealing with some family problems as her older sister Klaudie gets ready to go off to college, and Tash is also involved in a bit of a love triangle* between fellow YouTuber Thom Causer and Jack's older brother, Paul (further complicated by the fact that Tash identifies as romantic asexual). [* Footnote: When I say "love triangle" in any of my reviews, I mean a situation where one character cannot decide which of two others he is/she is/they are romantically interested in. The phrase may have other meanings, but that's the one I'm using.]
Tash Hearts Tolstoy has an interesting premise, but unfortunately, it is clumsily executed in more than a few ways. First of all, you've probably heard the writing advice "show, don't tell" at some point—I'm not even a writer, and I've heard it many times! This book shows exactly what goes wrong when you ignore said advice. There's a number of interesting ideas in this novel, but almost every single idea is condensed into a paragraph or several in the first-person narration. Instead of seeing the challenges of making a web series based on a classic novel, Tash tells us the challenges. Instead of seeing Tash's unique family problems, Tash tells us about the multiple religions in her home and about how her mother misses her parents. There are a few issues that result from this kind of storytelling. First, all of the tension and interest is sucked out of these otherwise-interesting ideas. Second, pulling away from the interesting scenes in the book to spend a page or two explaining the backstory for what has happened disrupts the flow of the novel and makes the scenes less interesting. Third, having Tash explain so much to the reader makes her seem too observant and contemplative to be an actual teenager; if Tash's problems were shown and not told, it wouldn't seem like the author was trying to speak through Tash's mouth as much.
That brings me to the second problem of this book: characterization. Tash could be a totally interesting character. She loves classic novels and puts her all into a project that has required her to learn camera work, managerial skills, publicity, and more. However, Tash Hearts Tolstoy doesn't focus enough on these aspects of Tash, and what we do see of her is wasted on her explaining various plot points (see above) or just blithering and being a typical teenager. We see too much of what makes Tash similar to other kids and not enough of what makes her different. I also have to mention something random: Tash's friend Jack is an absolutely hysterical character. She is strangely dark and grim at times, but she also cares about people deep down inside. So why isn't she the main character? Sometimes I feel like authors think of a neat character, but then they worry that the character won't appeal to every reader, so they make some bland protagonist and push the interesting character off to the side. I'd much rather read a book with a unique protagonist that I don't necessarily relate to than a book with a bland protagonist that I do relate to.
And then we have the love triangle. Does it even count as a love triangle if it is so, so, sooooooo predictable that there is zero question how it will end? I can't stand love triangles, but even I wished the end was a little less obvious. The problem is, one of the two characters (I won't say who) has so little personality that it is truly amazing. Calling him a caricature would be too generous, because he doesn't even have some one-faceted personality or interest; he is literally a stick figure of a character, with his most distinctive attributes being the fact that he has a head, arms, and legs. Every time there was some attempt at tension injected into the plot, I always felt like it was just a delay of the inevitable. I did appreciate the representation of someone who is romantic asexual; it was interesting to see the challenges of romantically loving someone but not having sexual feelings toward them, even if they do toward you. I would have appreciated a slightly clearer explanation of Tash's feelings earlier in the book; there is a clearer one toward the end, but things stayed somewhat murky for quite a while. Also, I must say that I don't know enough about romantic asexuality to know if the way it is depicted in this book is truly, 100% realistic. As far as I could tell, the author herself is not asexual, and I have to wonder how thoroughly researched these ideas are: are they based on personal experience, the experience of a sibling or relative, thorough research, or just hearsay? Also, there is one point when Tash does something so mean and cruel and ridiculous and pointless to one of the two love interests that it was just insane. I suppose it was one way to add tension to the plot, but seriously? (I'm not going to spoil what it was, but you'll know when you get to it, trust me.)
Two last criticisms before I get to anything good: Tash's grandparents died in a car crash, so you'd think she would be smart enough not to put her car in park in an intersection at night to talk to her sister because "no one else was on the road," but you'd be wrong. PSA: Do not put your car in park in the middle of an intersection when the few people who are out don't think anyone else is out either. Common sense, people, come on. Also, this book doesn't tie in too much to Anna Karenina (a blessing or a curse, depending on your perspective), except when it spoils the book's ending! I don't suspect any of you have urgent plans to read Anna Karenina, but if you do, maybe hold off on reading this book.
Despite what it may seem, there are some good parts to this book. As I mentioned before, Jack is a compelling character, and Tash's relationship with Jack and Paul in general adds a nice element of lightheartedness and comfort to the story (and unlike many other good elements in the book, this one actually gets enough "screen time," so to speak). The author of this book does have a skill at describing things and setting the scene, which allows readers to visualize many of the events of this book. The end of the book has Tash making a trip by herself to the Golden Tuba Awards, and it's totally fun to see Tash on her own, staying in a hotel by herself and going to an award ceremony to see if the project she put so much heart and soul into gets the recognition it deserves. (And I also appreciated that this is one of the rare book endings where, after a conflict with friends occurs, the person who did wrong actually makes concrete changes to their behavior in order to earn their friends back!) Finally, the book is quite funny at times; as an example, there are a number of entertaining moments where Tash "talks" to the poster of Leo Tolstoy (or "my man Leo," as she sometimes calls him) that hangs on her wall.
Overall, Tash Hearts Tolstoy is a bit (well, more than a bit) of a mess, but the funny thing is that I actually had fun reading this book. I enjoyed getting to dissect the problems in the novel (see the ranting above) and took pleasure in the occasional good moments. This book is not what I'd call a good book, but you might just have a fun time reading it!