I’ve always admired writers who can take a secondary character from one book and then continue to develop their story in another book – a different story from a new perspective. Taryn Bashford has achieved this in The Astrid Notes (Pan MacMillan 2019), a companion novel to her YA success The Harper Effect. In this new book, we follow the storyline of Jacob, one of my favourite characters in The Harper Effect. Reading The Astrid Notes was like meeting up with an old friend, and it was lovely to understand how his life had expanded and changed since the first book.
But this can also be read as a stand-alone. Once again, Bashford takes us directly into the adolescent minds of her characters, and in The Astrid Notes we are given the narrative from two perspectives: Jacob and his love interest Astrid Bell. With each alternate chapter taking up from the previous one, we get a lovely back and forth, simultaneous tale, told from two points of view.
As with Bashford’s first book, The Astrid Notes captures teenage angst, passion, desire, yearning, insecurities, ambition and the search for belonging and identity. The young people in this story need to prove themselves – to their parents, to their friends and ultimately, to themselves.
The book begins with Jacob – Indie singer, trust-fund kid – suffering a terrible tragedy that changes his life and makes him certain he will never sing again. This shocking opening catapults us into the transformed landscape of his life; he seems more grown-up than when we left him in The Harper Effect, and certainly having to cope with increased responsibility and pressure. He meets Astrid Bell, a promising opera singer who wants to write pop songs, the daughter of a demanding and strict but loving father who wants the best for her but also tightly controls her. And she suffers from stage fright. As the novel progresses, and we learn more about Astrid’s history, and the complicated legacy of her famous mother and beloved sister, both gone, the reason for her anxiety becomes apparent. While they at first seem to be completely different people who want the opposite from life, Jacob and Astrid are drawn to each other and come to realise that they fill in the absences in each other’s lives. They need each other.
Bashford has a knack for writing teenage desire and longing with the sexual tension and pace of a racy romance but the appropriate boundaries for younger (YA) readers. She writes of love and friendship in a way that adolescents will recognise and relate to; she peppers her stories with fresh, sharp dialogue that is authentic and engaging. Bashford writes with authority about the interests of her characters: in The Harper Effect it was professional tennis; in this book it is music – everything from classical opera to boy-band pop – and also surfing. And the lovely imagery of the Purple Woods – the meaning, the metaphor – continues here, and is replicated on the beautiful cover. This author favours exploring the themes of parental control and authority, young people’s independence and ambitions, the drive and work required to succeed, and the real or imagined emotional barriers to following your dreams. The Astrid Notes also examines the legacy of family history, and how young people manage to flourish because of – or despite – that history.
I think my favourite character in this book is the young man Dex – again, another minor character – but perhaps one due to star in his own future novel?!