This review contains spoilers from the book.
Kathryn Ormsbee‘s new novel Tash Hearts Tolstoy is a creative, heartwarming story about 17-year-old Natasha “Tash” Zelenka who skyrockets to online fame after her web series, Unhappy Families, gets an unexpected nod of approval from a well-known vlogger. The series in question: a modern interpretation of Leo Tolstoy‘s seminal novel, Anna Karenina. Leo is Tash’s main man, a source of inspiration behind her creative pursuits. But Tash is all too aware of the fact that Unhappy Families isn’t quite the heavy-hitting success as its source material. Not even close.
Tash and her best friend, Jaclyn “Jack” Harlow, write and produce the web series, and they stick to a strict production schedule, wrangling temperamental actors, in order to get it out there for the world to see. Because even if the show only has 400 followers, it’s a project they believe in. Everything changes when Taylor Mears—famed web series producer—gives her a nod of approval to several up-and-coming web series. After that, the followers just come rolling in. Fame, however, is not something Tash and Jack are prepared for.
Tash plans and arranges even more than she usually does and becomes emotionally invested in the comments people post about Unhappy Families—good and bad. Jack keeps her cool, but, in doing so, remains blasé about the whole thing. Much to Tash’s vexation, Jack is a purist through and through; she refuses to create art for commercial success or to keep up with the demands of new fans. It’s great for keeping Tash down-to-earth, but terrible for Tash’s hunger to make a name for herself.
Once the final filming sessions are squared away, and their new found fame is under control, a new series of problems come to light. Tash’s sister, Klaudie, plays a small, but integral, role in the show. She and Tash don’t particularly get along, and Tash can see Klaudie has quite a bit of disdain for Tash’s investment in the project. But when she quits early on in the last phase of shooting, Tash is livid. Most of their interactions thereafter are accusatory silences, icy glares, and slammed doors. It’s a nasty fight, fought mostly in silence—a fight that unbalances the zen of the Zelenka household. Though, Mr. and Mrs. Zelenka pour fuel on the fire when they announce that they are going to have a baby.
In the meantime, Tash’s best friends, Jack and Paul, are fearing the worst when their dad, in remission after having had pancreatic cancer, begins having headaches. More strain is piled on when Tash suspects Paul is jealous of her flirtatious correspondence with another online blogger named Thom Causer. He and Tash plan to meet at the Golden Tuba award ceremony/web convention where Unhappy Families has been nominated for “Best New Web Series.”
This leads to an exploration of Tash’s biggest dilemma—something Ormsbee seems dedicated to discussing: asexuality. Throughout the novel, she grapples with fact that she has no desire for sexual contact even though she has romantic feelings, constantly wondering if she’s fully human or not considering that such a sexual drive is what keeps humanity going. Even Jack and Paul don’t really know how to talk about it with her, and Tash doesn’t really know what to say about it. When it becomes obvious that Paul has feelings for her, she lashes out by telling him about all the things he can never have with her.
When she meets Thom at the convention, her explanation as to why their relationship won’t lead to anything physical does not go over very well. He takes on the role of teenage “mansplainer” when he tells Tash she doesn’t know what she’s talking about and is just confused. Disaster ensues.
Tash ends up leaving the convention early when she finds out Mr. Harlow’s cancer has come back with a vengeance and apologizes for everything she said to Paul and for the tension that has arisen between the three friends.
It’s an offbeat story, one that blends the relatively new phenomenon of vlogging and web series with the heaviness of Russian literature. Though I have to say, there is far less Tolstoy in this novel than I accepted. Just a lot of Tash staring at a poster of young Tolstoy on her wall, conversing about what to do with her life.
Ormsbee is a competent, clean writer who’s written a lovely piece of fiction. Her characters are well developed and nuanced to the point where the reader feels true annoyance and happiness for them at certain points in the story. But it would not have been particularly groundbreaking without the discussion of asexuality, which lifted its position to a must read in the LGBTQ+ canon.
Her approach to Tash’s relationship with sexuality is extremely well done because she captures the essence of confusion that comes along with having romantic feelings without wanting the physical aspects that most people expect. Ormsbee places questions of how to navigate a relationship between a sexual person and an asexual person into the narrative and tackles Tash’s own understanding of her proclivities.
If there are other pieces of YA fiction that deal with asexuality, I don’t know of them. Ormsbee has gone where few authors have before, but her work is certainly part of a boom in LGBTQ+ literature that is refreshing in its representation of nuanced sexuality. Tash Hearts Tolstoy is a touching, smart, funny novel worth reading.