Ask Me Again: A novel

Image of Ask Me Again: A novel
Release Date: 
June 11, 2024
Reviewed by: 

“worth reading . . .”

When a novel, like this one, is light on plot or narrative tension, the protagonist’s voice and character must carry the story. That’s what makes Ask Me Again so frustrating.

In simple, largely unemotional prose, it traces 10 years in the life of the third-person narrator, Eva, starting when she’s a middle-class 16-year-old in Brooklyn.

Sometimes the narrative voice’s simplicity opens the world in a wonderfully fresh way. When Eva meets the young man who will become her college boyfriend, and then learns his name a little while later, she thinks, “The name settled over him, changing him, though she couldn’t be sure how. As if he’d taken off his glasses, or put on a new shirt.”

Often, however, that simplicity comes across as too juvenile and naïve for Eva’s age and urban upbringing, almost as if she’s giggling at her own cuteness. For instance, a couple of years out of college, when she’s invited to a party for Jess—an up-and-coming member of Congress presumably modeled on New York City Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—Eva prepares by reading some 20 or 30 news articles about Jess. “By the time she had finished reading, she felt well informed. She felt good. But now no one was talking about politics.”

While this is how Dick and Jane might talk, it’s not how a college-educated journalist thinks.

The book begins in the emergency room of a Manhattan hospital in December 2006, as Eva and her parents keep vigil over her grandmother, who had tried to commit suicide by jumping out of a second-floor window at her nursing home. One morning in the waiting room, while she’s people-watching and half-reading a book of poetry, Eva notices “a teenage boy, skinny limbs and stringy hair, whose eyes were also closed, but his posture was too good for sleeping.” His name is Jamie, and It turns out that he’s waiting for his older brother, who has once again come to the ER after a drunken binge.

Over the next decade, Eva and Jamie meander in and out of each other’s lives, their relationship constantly shifting from mentorship to friendship to almost-flirtation to worry and many stages beyond.

Eva follows a fairly typical path for a middle-class Millennial: college, an entry-level job at a Washington, DC, newspaper, apartment-sharing in a couple of large Coastal cities, periodic visits with her parents.

Jamie, meanwhile, zigzags far off the path. He drops out of college, cuts off his parents, works in tech, lives in a tent, joins the Occupy Wall Street movement, becomes a member of an ad hoc church, then camps out in an abandoned warehouse.

If the Eva-Jamie relationship is supposed to be the fulcrum of this coming-of-age story, the reader needs to see a lot more of Jamie. Yet he disappears for long stretches. His Occupy and Thoreau periods, for instance, are tossed off in a few pages.

Eva’s female friendships, luckily, are more richly portrayed, especially her unexpected connection with the older advice columnist Judy. However, it’s hard to believe that a busy politician like Jess would have time for daily long walks with Eva, who is not an adviser, staff member, reporter, expert on a key issue, or even a constituent.

One nice and original touch is that each chapter title is an unusual question: “How Could You?” “Can I Ask You Something?” “Where Have You Been?” “Where Did You Come From?” Author Clare Sestanovich was named a 2022 “5 Under 35” honoree by the National Book Foundation, and her short-story collection Objects of Desire was a PEN finalist.

At one point in this novel, Eva says of herself that “she was two different people. The yes person and the no person.”

There are also two other Evas, the perceptive Eva and the infantile Eva. On balance, it’s worth reading Ask Me Again for the flashes of the first Eva.