From the author of Lucky Few comes a quirky teen novel about Internet fame, peer pressure, and remembering not to step on the little people on your way to the top!
After a shout-out from one of the Internet’s superstar vloggers, Natasha “Tash” Zelenka suddenly finds herself and her obscure, amateur web series, Unhappy Families, thrust in the limelight: She’s gone viral.
Her show is a modern adaption of Anna Karenina—written by Tash’s literary love Count Lev Nikolayevich “Leo” Tolstoy. Tash is a fan of the 40,000 new subscribers, their gushing tweets, and flashy Tumblr gifs. Not so much the pressure to deliver the best web series ever.
And when Unhappy Families is nominated for a Golden Tuba award, Tash’s cyber-flirtation with a fellow award nominee suddenly has the potential to become something IRL—if she can figure out how to tell said crush that she’s romantic asexual.
Tash wants to enjoy her newfound fame, but will she lose her friends in her rise to the top? What would Tolstoy do?
Tash Hearts Tolstoy One Here is the first thing you should know about me: I, Tash Zelenka, am in love with Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy. That is his official name, but since he and I are so close, I get to call him Leo.
I met Leo in a bookstore when I was fourteen years old. It was the beginning of the school year, and I had ambitious goals for myself. Freshman English was too easy for me. After two weeks, I was already bored senseless. So I googled a list of famous novels, and I made a short list of the books I would read that year. The first on the list was Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. You might say it was Anna Arkadyevna Karenina who introduced us.
It was love at first line. In case you’re curious, here is what that line was: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Isn’t that perfect? Leo knows just what to say to sweep a girl off her feet. That night, I stayed up until 3 a.m. reading the first twenty chapters of Anna Karenina. I was infatuated, and have been ever since.
Leo and I have a bit of the Romeo and Juliet thing going on. Talk about some majorly crossed stars. For one thing, my father doesn’t approve of Leo because he is so very Russian. Dad would rather I be infatuated with a nice Czech author like Václav Havel or Milan Kundera, who are perfectly decent boys and all, but have you tried reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being? More like The Unbearable Pretension of Pretentiousness, am I right?
Another obstacle: Leo is dead. Very dead. He’s been pushing daisies for 107 years.
The course of true love never did run smooth.
Here is the second thing you should know about me: I’m a filmmaker. Or at least, a filmmaker-in-training. And no, I’m not trying to make the next Citizen Kane yet, but I do run a YouTube channel with my best friend, Jacklyn Harlow, and right now we’re in the midst of filming a web series. And not just any web series—a modern adaptation of Anna Karenina. See? We’ve come full circle, and in case it wasn’t clear before, now you know: My man Tolstoy is a major part of my life.
“Can we run that again? Starting with Eva’s line, ‘I know what it says.’ ”
It’s late Friday afternoon, and we’re at my house, shooting a pivotal scene in the series. I’m situated behind the DSLR camera, while Jack is monitoring sound levels. Jack’s older brother and my other best friend, Paul, stands off camera, holding a boom mic over the heads of the talent—George and Eva.
Today’s shoot isn’t complicated, exactly, and it only requires two of our seven-person cast. Still, it’s absolutely vital we get everything right, because this scene reveals a huge plot point that’s been dozens of episodes in the making.
And it is a kissing scene.
Filming a kissing scene is not as awkward as you think it is. It’s ten times more awkward. For one thing, you are asking two people who are not in love to make out as though they were. For another, you are sitting on the other end of a camera, recording it all like a demented voyeur. Which is particularly funny in my case, because I don’t even find that kind of thing appealing. And for another thing, you’re asking these two people to kiss multiple times. Like, Oh sorry, you didn’t move your lips in exactly the right way, or Oops, there’s a bit of saliva just there, we’ll have to do another take.
In this particular case, we’re on our fourth try. I’m uncomfortable, but I’m trying to be professional. That’s my artistic creed: professional under all circumstances. But this would all be a lot easier if George and Eva weren’t in the middle of a fight.
“Hang on,” says George, after I give my direction. “I need a minute.”
“Oh my God,” says Eva. She plops her head in her hands as George launches into a breathing exercise, followed by some elocution practice.
He’s looping “bah, boh, buh, beh” through puckered lips, when Eva cuts him off, yelling, “We’re not even talking, we’re making out!” Which causes Paul to snicker so hard that the boom lowers into the frame, quivering from his laughter.
I’ve begun to despair. At this rate, we are never going to capture the golden shot—that take where everything comes together and the actors’ performance seems like the most natural happening in the world. Usually George and Eva get along really well. This tiff of theirs came about all because George insulted Eva an hour earlier by saying her breath smelled and she’d have to suck on some mints before he would film with her. And while this was admittedly a dick move on George’s part, I wish Eva would let it go, because though she might be a good actress under normal circumstances, she cannot pull off a besotted gaze right now, when there is murder in her eyes.
“Do we need to take five?” Jack asks, tugging off her headphones.
I nod. “Yeah. Okay, take five, both of you. Walk around or something. Get it out of your system.”
Eva doesn’t need to be told twice. She hops up and leaves the room in a flurry. A moment later, I hear the sound of the tap turning on in the kitchen. George remains where he is and continues his elocution practice as though nothing has happened.
I turn to Jack with a “kill me now” expression. She shrugs. Jack can be infuriatingly chill sometimes. I know she’s got to be frustrated too.
Our series, Unhappy Families, isn’t doing too well. I don’t mean monetarily, because we don’t make a cent from our YouTube site. I mean our fan base isn’t what we hoped it’d be when we first started this project last December. Our goal was to hit one thousand subscribers, which was definitely a reach, but reasonable. It’s nearing the end of May, and we’re at a measly four hundred, not even half our target.
It’s not that Jack and I expected to become an overnight Internet sensation à la Bieber, but we did think we’d get, I don’t know, a little more attention. As things stand, we’ve got some faithful viewers who leave comments on our biweekly videos, but that’s about it. No fan network. No clamoring calls for the next episode. No thousand subscribers. Jack and I haven’t said as much out loud, but I think we’re both pinning our remaining hopes on this episode between George and Eva. Because if anything is going to give our web series a shot in the arm, it’s a kissing scene. As Jack once put it, “Masses love the kissy face.” Which I don’t get, but hey, I will play by the rules.
George is running through a tongue twister (“red leather, yellow leather”) when I lean forward and tap his knee.
He gives me a look, like he’s affronted I would dare interrupt his solemn thespian ritual, but he stops and lifts his brows, expectant.
“Um, do you think you could apologize to Eva?”
George looks even more affronted. “Why?”
“Because you were kind of harsh earlier, and she’s mad at you, and none of these kisses are believable.”
“I’m not sorry, though.”
I push out a sigh, trying to remain calm. Sometimes directing is like babysitting preschoolers—it requires a lot of patience, a sturdy set of lungs, and the ability to coax egomaniacs into doing what you want.
“Right, I know you’re not,” I say. “And I completely understand. But could you do me a huge favor and act like you’re sorry? We’re not going to get a good shot unless you two make nice, and I’m asking you to talk to Eva because you’re always such a class act on set.”
I can feel Jack watching me—probably both impressed and disgusted by my shameless flattery. It’s no secret George considers himself the best actor in our cast, and while I’d usually deem his behavior worthy of the title “prima donna,” I can change that to “class act” for the sake of a good take.
George takes the bait. Just an additional “Please?” from me, and he gives a wordless nod, then leaves for the kitchen like a soldier marching up to the front lines.
Once he’s gone, Jack gives me a dramatic slow clap.
Paul says, “Masterfully handled.”
“Just doing my job,” I say. “Paul, you don’t have to keep holding the boom.”
“Really? Oh, thank God.” Paul lowers the boom pole to the floor, carefully leaning it against the living room couch, where George and Eva have recently been not convincingly kissing.
“Yeah, you’d better save your strength for tomorrow,” says Jack.
Tomorrow, Paul is graduating from our school, Calhoun High, along with my older sister, Klaudie. I’m trying not to think about that. It’s impossible to imagine Paul not being at Calhoun. At least he’s staying in town for college.
There’s a soft “ahem” at my back. I turn to find George and Eva in the doorway. He looks a little annoyed, but pleased. She looks a little annoyed, but placated. That’s an improvement, at least. I can work with a little annoyance.
“Okay,” I say. “Ready to try this again?”
George and Eva get back in place, sitting on the edge of the couch in front of a game of Scrabble. Paul picks up the boom and assumes position. Jack snaps her headphones on and gets the clapper board ready, positioning it in front of the lens.
This time, it’s going to be better. This time, we’re going to get our golden shot. I can already tell. The energy between George and Eva has changed. The anger’s faded from Eva’s eyes. Our actors are finally ready. Now it’s just a matter of rolling the camera.
“From the top of the scene,” I say. I hit the record button and nod at Jack, who drops the clapstick and then pulls the clapper board out of frame.
Kathryn Ormsbee grew up with a secret garden in her backyard and a spaceship in her basement. She is the author of The Water and the Wild and the YA novels Lucky Few and Tash Hearts Tolstoy. She’s lived in lots of fascinating cities, from Birmingham to London to Seville, but she currently lives in Austin, Texas.
"It’s beyond refreshing to see an asexual character, and the complexities of Tash’s relationships with Thom, her friends, her sister, and, yes, fame make this a home run. The flip, irreverent tone, literary references, and peek into the creation of a web series are just icing on the cake."
– Booklist, STARRED REVIEW
"[A] spot-on narrative voice, make this a compassionate and frank look into challenges that can seem to fly at teenagers from all directions."