Review of Tash Hearts Tolstoy by

Book cover for Tash Hearts Tolstoy

Back in my day, we didn’t have the YouTubes or the social medias, just good ol’ fashioned Angelfire and GeoCities….

Tash Hearts Tolstoy is a fun, quirky comedy about an eponymous protagonist (Tash, not Tolstoy) whose webseries goes viral overnight. While she deals with how this affects her life and her aspirations, she has to navigate the upheavals in her family and friendships as a result of her sister going to college, her parents expecting another child, and her best friends going through their own traumas. Kathryn Ormsbee’s story is genuine and occasionally moving, but it shies away from fulling engaging with many of the issues it brings up, from Tash’s asexuality to the intricacies of managing a webseries.

Trigger warnings in this book for acemisia and also dealing with a family member who has cancer. I’ll discuss the former later on but don’t really comment much on the latter.

Most of the positives of Tash Hearts Tolstoy come from how other characters interact with Tash. I enjoyed Tash’s relationship with Jack a lot. It’s nice to see best friendships where the two friends have frequent, minor conflicts sparked by their differences in personality. Life isn’t always a dichotomy of smooth sailing or big, blow-out fights—sometimes there’s just friction, especially if you’re collaborating on a project. Even though Tash is an unreliable narrator, Ormsbee injects enough self-awareness into her that we have an understanding of when she is being a little unreasonable, or when Jack is, or both. Tash and Jack’s interactions are definitely a highlight of the book for me.

The whole thing between Tash and Paul is … I don’t know. Trite, at best? I’m so conflicted about the whole “boy and girl are super-best-friends-since-basically-birth but then boy falls for girl and pines for her in secret for years and only springs it on her at the last moment” trope. I get that it’s a trope for a reason, in that it actually happens, but I just wish we could see more stories that avert it and show platonic friendship without any such tension. Still, I actually like the resolution here. As with so much of the book, it felt very rushed, but I like that Ormsbee at least seems to leave the door open to Tash and Paul figuring out what a relationship means for them without shackling themselves to the definitions and labels foisted upon them by society.

I guess that brings me to Tash’s representation as a “romantic” (alloromantic) asexual person. I share her sexuality (but am aromantic) and can understand her confusion to an extent (though I feel more confused about what romantic attraction is than sexual attraction). Having come to this identity in a slightly different way from Tash, it’s difficult for me to comment on that part of the portrayal. I hope that someone closer in age to Tash who is similarly questioning their identity will find something they recognize in here.

Basically, Tash Hearts Tolstoy has adequate representation of asexuality, but its portrayal is overly simplistic. Ormsbee could have taken more risks and developed a much richer narrative of exploring this identity. Instead, whether as a result of her writing or merely a hesitation to not screw it up, she hews closely to surface-level issues, such as sex-repulsion and confronting acemisia, without really exploring either issue in depth or confronting related ideas.

Tash seems to be sex-averse or sex-repulsed (but not touch-averse), and it is important to note that “not interested in sex” or “not getting the big deal about sex” are not synonymous with asexuality. I don’t think you even need to necessarily throw all these terms at a reader. But aside from Tash remarking once or twice about how complex she realized this is from her research, the book seems very unwilling to examine asexuality as anything other than what Tash happens to be experiencing. While I think Ormsbee does eventually make it clear that this asexuality is about attraction, there is a layer of nuance missing from the story. This is even more apparent in how Ormsbee handles the Thom–Tash subplot.

It was inevitable, of course, that Thom would be a massive asshat. Tash Hearts Tolstoy follows a very clear story arc, and it was never going to end with Tash and Thom hooking up (romantically, sexually, or otherwise) and BFFing into the sunset. And everything that Thom says to Tash is something that many asexual people hear when they come out. But that’s kind of the problem: in a single, short exchange, Ormsbee transforms Thom from a potentially interesting character into a mouthpiece for extremely stereotypical comments. Suddenly he’s just another “hater” for Tash to get over rather than any real source of conflict. I appreciate what Ormsbee is attempting to do here—i.e., demonstrate how asexual people are so often gaslit and then push back against it—but the attempt ultimately feels quite shallow.

It’s as if Ormsbee did her research, like Tash did, and sketched out an “asexual coming-of-age” story arc from “discovers the definition on the Internet” to “best friend awkwardly hits on you” to “romantic crush denies your sexuality is a thing”. But the execution is so rushed—Tash barely has time to mention how she researched asexuality before we’re off to another part of the story—it’s as if Ormsbee thinks all she has to do is hit each of these requisite stops on the train through Acetown and her book is going to be ace-ok. It doesn’t work that way. This isn’t bad rep, but it’s rep that doesn’t actually engage with the issues asexual people face.

There is a clumsiness to Tash Hearts Tolstoy, and it isn’t just in the portrayal of Tash’s sexuality. I had trouble getting into the book, because Tash’s voice didn’t resonate with me. The way she spoke to us read like an older person emulating a younger person. I’m not sure if someone closer in age to Tash would agree, of course; maybe Ormsbee nailed it and I’m just the olds now—part of the problem is that, at 28, I use a lot of the same slang as Tash but in a slightly different way, as Internet language drift is a fast-paced and capricious god. Beyond that, though, I think it’s largely a consequence of the challenge Ormsbee has set for herself in telling this story of overnight YouTube fame, which is to explain it in a way that doesn’t feel heavyhanded to the audience that understands but make it intelligible enough to someone who doesn’t inhale YouTube.

Although I love the way Ormsbee portrays Tash and Jack’s webseries production as this very committed, professional endeavour from them and their cast and crew, there is just so much more she could have explored when it comes to YouTube. As with Tash’s asexuality, she really only scratches the surface here.

Despite my reservations, I have to admit that Tash Hearts Tolstoy made me feel some feels. Not the Tash/Thom scene, god no, but two scenes in particular stand out in my mind.

First: Tash and Klaudie’s sobering heart-to-heart after the former picks up her drunk sister and they spend the rest of the night at their grandparents’ graves. The sibling relationship, and Tash’s disappointment over not being as close to her sister as she wants to be, is quite good here. This scene serves as an excellent climax to that subplot while not becoming melodramatic: Ormsbee’s lampshading makes it clear that this didn’t magically “fix” Tash and Klaudie, but maybe it gave each of them some perspective.

Second: Tash and George’s conversation following the Thom debacle. It’s a classic case of not imagining others as complexly as you should. Tash spends the entire story writing off George as a generic prick, whereas instead, as she comments to him, he has an entire “philosophy of prickishness”. Ormsbee writes George’s surprise role as an emotional support with a deftness and compassion that left me tearing up a little.

There’s something good here, mixed up in a lot that I found more mediocre. I wish I could say Tash Hearts Tolstoy is this amazing book about an asexual webseries-producing teenager trying to figure out her life after high school and whether or not she’s crushing. But it’s a little too predictable for me, a little too trite, and not quite as deep as I want my fiction, YA or otherwise, to be.

Engagement

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