Tash Hearts Tolstoy Is the Ace Coming-of-Age Story We Need and Deserve
Let me tell you a story about art, asexuality, and Anna Karenina.
Kathryn Ormsbee’s 2017 young adult novel Tash Hearts Tolstoy broke my heart and put it back together in the way only a good book can. It has everything you could want from a coming-of-age story: the last summer before graduation, familial conflict, heart-tugging romance, road trips, college anxieties, profound realisations set to pop-rock music, the power of friendship … and the personal story of one ace teenager navigating life and love. That last part, you don’t normally see.
For a long time, there’s been a push against the tradition of so-called “issue novels” where the protagonist’s lack of heterosexuality is the key conflict in the book. Now more than ever there is a hungry audience for stories that aren’t just about coming out or how tough it is to be non-hetero in a heteronormative world. The field of young adult (YA) publishing especially is meeting that demand. Young people want coming-of-age stories that feature not only a diversity of identities, but in a diverse range of genres, too: epic queer sci-fi, enchanting queer fantasy, goofy queer romantic comedies.
I, for one, am always happy to see LGBTQIA+ protagonists starring in the kinds of genre fiction that is usually reserved for straight characters. I also acknowledge, of course, that there very much is still a place for stories about coming out and the struggles of living as a marginalised identity in the real world. What makes Tash Hearts Tolstoy so great is that it functions as a mix of the two. It’s a teenage drama-comedy with all the usual associated hijinks and has a uniquely asexual plot woven throughout. Tash’s being ace is not the driving force of the plot in the novel, but it is a vital part of it, without which the book just wouldn’t be the same. The same is true for Tash as a person: her asexuality isn’t her defining trait, but it is a vital part of who she is.
The plot centres on the web series Tash and her best friends, Jack and Paul, are putting together: a modern reimagining of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina that they’ve named Unhappy Families. When Unhappy Families gets a shout-out from a popular vlogger, Tash watches dizzily as her passion project goes viral. Suddenly she has fans, people gushing about it on Twitter, making gif sets on Tumblr, and flooding her email with feedback. Not all of it is positive, but Tash tries (with varying success) not to let it get to her. Especially when the series is nominated for an award!
But that, too, has its downsides: at the awards ceremony, Tash will have the opportunity to meet her crush, a fellow YouTuber named Thom. Their relationship, which has mostly consisted of text messages, has the opportunity to become something more if they meet in person. Tash is excited, but also apprehensive: after all, something more has the connotations of a physical relationship, and she hasn’t plucked up the courage to tell Thom that she’s asexual.
While Tash’s experience won’t (and can’t) sum up the experience of all romantic asexuals, I think it will resonate with a lot of people, especially young people. Tash reminisces about finding validation “scrolling through forums with purple color schemes” (p.113). She remembers feeling alienated when, in high school sex ed, she was told “Sex is a normal part of life. We are all sexual beings” and all she could think was “Not me, why not me?” (p.114). Even when she starts to happily identify as asexual, she can’t help but wonder “Am I missing something essential?” when looking at the sex-oriented world around her (p.207). When her English teacher loftily proclaims that the motivating forces behind all stories are either sex or death, she wonders
“…if it’s too much to ask for a pass into an alternate dimension, where it’s just not an issue. Because stuck in this particular dimension, I wonder if I’m only ever going to be a disappointment. A not-quite-right human. A girl in need of fixing. If there are a mere two driving forces behind every story out there, does that mean the only force left to me is death?” (p.269)
These are the anxieties thrust upon people on the ace spectrum, and Ormsbee captures them with truth and clarity. The most painful and painfully real part of the book is the scene where Tash does pluck up the courage to come out to Thom … and it goes horribly. He belittles her identity, saying “You’re, like, seventeen. No one knows they’re asexual at seventeen” (p.314), and “no one out there was ever saying they were asexual before the Internet” (p.315). These are things we have probably all heard, whether in person or online. Thom puts the cherry on the cake by simply stating “You can’t like guys and say you’re ‘asexual’. That’s not a thing. And you’re not going to find any guy out there who will tell you it is” (p.315).
Reading this argument felt like ripping a Band-Aid off. The second-hand stress I had felt for Tash for the entire leadup to her meeting Thom was finally released in a heart-rending crackle of catharsis. This experience, again, will resonate with a lot of people, of any age—I have been lucky enough not to have this exact conversation, but it still managed to punch me in the gut. This scene is in many ways the climax of the book, and this acephobic rejection is given full dramatic and emotional weight. Thom’s words are crushing, both in context and in how they echo sentiment from the real world. But they’re also soon proven wrong.
Tash does find a guy who accepts her asexuality; in fact he has been beside her all along. I am always one to root for the childhood friend in a love triangle scenario, but the resolution to Tash’s romantic arc is particularly satisfying here. Tash’s feelings are validated, she is promised communication and compromise, and she is assured by the boy asking her out that he would rather just hug her than be with anyone else in the world.
The circumstances at the end of the novel are complicated and bittersweet, but in the romance department, Tash gets an unmarred happy ending. Tash Hearts Tolstoy tells a story about how difficult it is to exist as an asexual person in the real world, but it is a story with a positive turnaround that provides the kind of delightfully sappy and satisfying conclusion awarded to straight romances in YA literature all the time. The final message of the book is ultimately one of hope: there are people like Thom out there, but there are also people like Tash’s friend-to-lover Paul, and aces deserve to find that sort of happiness as much as anyone else. It paints an accurate picture of an acephobic world, while providing the assurance that it doesn’t have to be this way, and that there is validation and happiness to be found within it.
Tash’s coming-of-age story captures a lot of the ups and downs facing teenagers, both specifically modern (the alternating utopia/hellscape that is social media) and timeless (conflicts with her family as they grow and grow apart). And, again, woven inextricably through the poignant growing-up story is a uniquely asexual narrative. This is not just an enjoyable book, but an important book, too, speaking to young people (and, hey, older readers, too) who often don’t get their voices heard. Tash Hearts Tolstoy is as funny as it is heartbreaking, as realistic and painfully resonant as it is a wonderful affirming romantic dramady. It is the ace coming-of-age story we need, and the one we deserve, and hopefully it will help pave the way for many more novels like it.