Tash Hearts Tolstoy by Kathryn Ormsbee
Published June 6, 2017
A story of internet fame, friendship, and family, Tash Hearts Tolstoy is an enjoyable YA contemporary read that offers more in the way of plot tension, both from internal and external factors, than some of its fluffier YA peers. Admittedly YA contemporary is not my genre, but I was won over by Tash Hearts Tolstoy, admiring the creativity and determination of its seventeen-year-old protagonist, the depiction of an underrepresented sexuality, and the realistically rendered characters, who each have quirks and flaws.
The book is told from the perspective of Natasha “Tash” Zelenka, co-creator of an amateur webseries based on Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina called “Unhappy Families”. Tash wants nothing more than for the show to find an audience, but when it’s mentioned by a superstar vlogger, she gets more than she bargains for as the show suddenly takes off. Although she loves the positive comments and attention the series is getting, Tash dwells on the few negative reviews it receives and feels pressure to deliver the series to a satisfying end. When “Unhappy Families” is nominated for a prestigious Golden Tuba award, her cyber-flirtation with fellow nominee Thom Causer has the potential to become something more, but only if she can figure out how to tell her crush that she’s romantic asexual.
At a time when we’re finally seeing better representation for people of different races, religions, and sexualities in books, TV, and movies, asexuality is still woefully under depicted. I can count on one hand the number of explicitly asexual characters I’ve encountered in fiction, let alone ace protagonists, and I can’t tell you how important I think Natasha “Tash” Zelenka will be for asexual teens. To be told that they are valid, that they’re not broken, and for romantic asexuals (who experience romantic feelings but aren’t interested in sex) to know that it’s possible to have a relationship and be loved for who they are is crucial. I loved that Tash is sure of her sexuality and not willing to compromise again on sex, but she’s also struggling with labels and with how to explain her feelings and lack of them to others.
As someone who generally doesn’t read a lot of lighter novels, I was relieved to find that while Tash Hearts Tolstoy is certainly still a positive book, it has a little less fluff and a little more grit to it than some other books in the genre. The characters here have a lot to deal with. Money is an issue, illness, changes to the family structure, concerns over which university to attend, internet fame and internet hate, and arguments with family all play a role in the story, as well as the more typical YA concerns of relationship drama and group dynamics.
I loved that the characters all felt so real to me. Tash is endearing, a protagonist who is creative and takes the initiative to begin a production company with her friend and embark on adapting a classic Russian novel into a more accessible contemporary web series. She has goals, passionate interests, and even makes a habit of talking to a poster of scowling young Leo Tolstoy that hangs in her room. This kind of history crush is definitely something I can understand (I have definitely never talked to my print of William Pitt the Younger addressing the House of Commons, nope not at all).
I also liked Tash’s friends and family. George, who seems like a bit of a prick, is definitely conceited but he also has moments where he comes through. Tash’s best friend Jack is calm and collected, able to remain clear-headed on set when Tash is overcome by emotion, but Jack is also not demonstrative, and can be prickly and tactless. Each character is distinct and flawed, yet their good qualities also shine through.
Just because I don’t watch any webseries doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the effort, creativity, and dedication that must go into making one, and Tash Hearts Tolstoy offers a fascinating glimpse into the process. I really enjoyed reading the descriptions of scheduling, adapting scenes, and even worrying about things such as continuity, while constructing a popular webseries.
The rather large downside is that even this novel with an asexual protagonist has the obligatory YA love triangle. When will our society be free of the love triangle plot device?! I don’t think it was necessary here, and a meeting with one point of the triangle that is obviously influenced by the kinds of skeptical comments asexual people sometimes receive (but how do you know you don’t like sex until you’ve tried it? etc.) struck me as a little forced. Also, as nice a symbolic gesture as it is, I found a late in the novel decision Tash makes to be rather silly, all things considered. My complaints are minor though in the face of this enjoyable book that offers important representation and characters that I wanted to spend more time with.