{Review} EMERGENCY CONTACT by Mary H.K. Choi

O P E N I N G   L I N E:

Penny knew that whatever Madison Chandler was going to say, she wasn't going to enjoy it. Madison Chandler leaned in close, mouth smiling, beady eyes narrowed. Penny held her breath.

(pg. 1, US hardcover edition)

"I know everything about you. Not only do I know everything about you, but I remember everything about you. My folder on you is so fat and complete and bursting with nonsensical shit because I couldn't help myself...I thought you didn't know me because I was insecure or broken or poor, and then I thought about it. It's because you never asked. Ever. I want to be with someone I can talk to. I want to be with someone who automatically has a fat folder on me. Someone who feels lucky when I tell them the most unflattering, scary stuff."

EMERGENCY CONTACT by Mary H.K. Choi is a book that sprung out of nowhere. I hadn't heard of it until it was published and then it was all over social media, from Instagram to BookTube to Twitter. A review copy magically showed up at my doorstep a couple days after the very first mention.

Penny is about to embark on her first year of college. She's off to the University of Texas, which is only an hour from home, but she's ready for the new experience. She's never quite fit in at high school. She's had a boyfriend, but never felt much for him. He mostly likes her because she's Asian, like all his former girlfriends. He wants their relationship to be more sexual than she's ready for, and they don't last long once she starts college life. Her mother flirts with anyone and would go home unsuspectingly with a serial killer if he was kind to her. She's worried about how her mom will survive without her, but also wants to be as far from her as possible.

Sam is going through the motions of life. He doesn't have a lot of money and lives above the cafe where he works in the corner of a room with a mattress. He's a fantastic cook and often baking cakes and pies and donuts and other baked goods. He's also taking a film class and wants to be a documentary filmmaker. For now, he can barely afford the class, and his lucky his boss lets him stay rent-free and gives him food. He's so poor that his ex-girlfriend permanently "loans" him her MacBook Air and upgrades to a new model. The same ex-girlfriend he can't quit and is still in love with. The same ex-girlfriend who might be pregnant with his baby after a drunken hookup when they were working on fixing their issues and debating getting back together. How can he take care of a baby when he can't even take care of himself?

Penny and Sam's lives intersect twice upon Penny's move to college: first when her roommate introduces her to "Uncle Sam," then again when Penny is alone and spots Sam having a panic attack. She helps him when he needs it most, and the two jokingly exchange phone numbers, saying they'll be one another's "Emergency Contact" if needed. They start texting, and their relationship forms through text messages. They don't visit one another or call one another. They just text. A LOT. Their friendship deepens, and they eventually elevate it to include phone calls, and even, tentatively, meeting in person.

Penny and Sam are both going through a lot of issues and have a lot of emotional baggage. Through anonymous words on their phones, they tell each other things they've never told anyone. They become best friends. And yet they have very little in-person interaction for much of the novel. Their relationship is odd, but solid and deep.

It's like Choi peered down into the lives of Sam and Penny, pulled out a few months of their life, and shared them with the world. Sam and Penny are so awkward, and feel so very, very human. A good portion of the book is told through texting because of their unusual relationship and that text-speak feels so realistic. It talks about mundane things such as the love of Pringles and whether or not Harry Potter should be re-read and whether a documentary about the life of a cat would be a good idea or not. The texts are a mix of fantastic grammar and the everyday way we send things without capitalization or periods. Sometimes, there's even shorthand. The shorthand is minimal, though, which makes it so much easier to read and get through. Especially since Penny is a writer and prefers to write with grammar, which Sam picks up on right away, and he starts spelling things out much more with her! I'm not a huge epistolary reader and struggle to get through books with texts, emails, letters, etc. EMERGENCY CONTACT used it so naturally that I didn't have that problem this time around and felt it only enhanced the relationship between the two.

In some ways, I hate comparing books to one another, especially when it's to a highly successful title or author. The trend in YA Contemporary later has been to say EVERY book is reminiscent of the John Greens and Rainbow Rowells of the world. This time, however? The emotional core of this book at times reminds me so strong of ELEANOR & PARK that it would be a disservice not to comp the two. Both books have socially and emotionally awkward characters. Both show the same situation through two very different pairs of eyes. When I reviewed E&P, I said that "Rowell strips everything down to the basics, reminding readers that this is real. It could happen. She also has a way of chipping at her characters' hearts and revealing their most ugly thoughts, the kind we all have about ourselves and rarely express out loud, the kind you don't often see reflected on even in books." EMERGENCY CONTACT has this same thread running through it. I also commented that both Eleanor and Park saw the same situation differently. What they perceived as flaws in themselves, the other person found attractive or didn't notice in the first place. Penny and Sam are like this as well. Everything Sam hates about himself, from his glasses to his cowlick to the fact that he might have put too many tattoos on his body is stuff that Penny finds insanely hot and attractive. And vice versa. So that's another reason that I feel the books compare well and also make the characters so much more realistic and relatable.

EMERGENCY CONTACT is a stand-alone, but I'd love to see the characters come back in another novel, even as secondary characters. Readers have invested so much time in them and want to see how they're doing later in life and if they're okay. There are so many loose threads left sticky, but it's not a bothersome sort of dangle because real life is like that. Real life doesn't end with a bow and all issues being resolved. We keep going, keep evolving, keep growing. So do Penny and Sam. I would love to continue peeping in on their life, but I also really appreciate the framework of the narration and the way they were introduced to readers. 

Don't go into this one expecting a full-on romance. Both characters are damaged and have been through a lot. Both use their relationship with one another to shed their pain without judgement and know that someone is still there for them. Relationships take a backseat to everything else and the emphasis is on the friendship between Penny and Sam, who have few physical interactions throughout the book, though readers see more of this toward the end, which is perhaps why they want to cling a little longer, read more, and see the pay-off for who these people will become. But for now, they are exactly where they need to be, and nothing feels forced, and their interactions are so natural that I could keep reading for days and still not be full of them and their lives.


Content Ratings: highlight between ( ) for details

Romance: PG13 ( kissing; memories of characters having sex before book begins )
Language:  PG13 ( A lot of cursing and foul language, from shit to slut to f-bombs. )
Violence:  --
Other: PG13 ( Teen pregnancy scare; recalling a memory of rape; underage smoking; allusions to thin characters possibly being on drugs )
C O V E R   D E S I G N:

I really like the foiled pop of gold against the soft, muted pink.

I also like that the characters are illustrated and outlined in black. It's simple, yet so fitting!

It's also perfect that they're both holding cellphones, because that's the most  important part of this novel, their connection to one another through text!

O F F I C I A L   I N F O:

Author: Mary H.K. Choi
Release Date: March 27, 2018
Publisher: Simon and Schuster

For Penny Lee high school was a total nonevent. Her friends were okay, her grades were fine, and while she somehow managed to land a boyfriend, he doesn’t actually know anything about her. When Penny heads to college in Austin, Texas, to learn how to become a writer, it’s seventy-nine miles and a zillion light years away from everything she can’t wait to leave behind. 

Sam’s stuck. Literally, figuratively, emotionally, financially. He works at a cafĂ© and sleeps there too, on a mattress on the floor of an empty storage room upstairs. He knows that this is the god-awful chapter of his life that will serve as inspiration for when he’s a famous movie director but right this second the seventeen bucks in his checking account and his dying laptop are really testing him. 

When Sam and Penny cross paths it’s less meet-cute and more a collision of unbearable awkwardness. Still, they swap numbers and stay in touch—via text—and soon become digitally inseparable, sharing their deepest anxieties and secret dreams without the humiliating weirdness of having to see each other.