I am beyond excited and honoured to be a part of the Emergency Contact Blog Tour! I must admit that this book has been on my radar since its publication, but I never was able to find time to read it! So, I’m super happy that I did get a chance.
Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi is an #OwnVoices novel and it explores the self-journey of the main protagonist, Penny Lee, who has finally been able to get a fresh start at College – away from her mother and away from expectations and she just can’t wait to leave it all behind. I’ll discuss more about Penny’s character later on in this review as she is quite an interesting character.
Sam is just plain old stuck in a rut. He lives at the cafe where he works, because he is technically homeless, struggles with depression and has emotional issues, I would say, that stem from low self-esteem or insecurity issues. But, as Penny likes to point out throughout the novel, he is extremely attractive.
Something about his hair.
Before I go any further, let’s take a look at the synopsis that’s available on GoodReads:
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 café 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.
Thoughts on the Narrative
It was an incredible super freakin’ cute read. That’s how I would describe the narrative of Emergency Contact. I adore premises that are quite simple in itself but open up a complex and intricate relationship which fundamentally changes the lives of the people involved. This is essentially what occurred within Choi’s novel – two strangers seemingly finding themselves through confiding to each other and legitimately becoming close friends.
I am a sucker for the whole ‘friends to lovers’ trope, if it is executed properly like that which this novel does, thankfully. I also thoroughly enjoyed how most of the narration itself was through dialogue, either conversations or through text messaging, because I adore being able to trace the moments where each character grows a little within themselves, but also their relationship overall. It’s like being this omniscient beast who can see where these characters’ fate lines intersect and knowing that they will end up together and just enjoying the ride until they get there.
It was fantastic.
That’s how I would describe the narrative aspect of Emergency Contact. It is just a wholesome good romance and I sped through it, so it is a perfect read for when you have a break or want to take a break.
Characters and Criticisms
Although I adored the story, it was the characters where I found myself kind of disengaging. Penny Lee is not quite likeable as a person and as a character; I didn’t really feel as though she ‘redeemed’ herself, so to speak, but I also don’t think this was that type of story. What I mean by that is, I do believe that the characters of Penny and Sam were written to be as ‘realistic’ as possible, therefore, with incredibly overt flaws that hinders them to reach that precipice of happiness and contentment with their life.
Although I understand that was the purpose of writing Penny and Sam as Choi did, it was not done super well. I really did not like Penny. She was extremely judgmental, bitter and nonchalant to the point that it came across as kind of arrogant. I wouldn’t consider her depiction as an actual ‘strong woman’ but what people may think a strong woman is – i.e. a woman with no personality and with a massive chip on her shoulder. What she really is, is an extremely traumatised young girl who needs help but doesn’t seek it and who then becomes a shell of who she is, blames the world and falls in love and there is no consideration of really truly healing. But she gets a boyfriend.
Her relationship, or really lack thereof, with her mother, shattered my heart – she treats her mother disastrously and consistently is embarrassed by what she wears and how she acts. Penny excused her behaviour through the ‘humiliation’ that ‘everyone knew her mother was kind of slutty’ and not being the daughter her mum wanted. But her mum tried so goddamn hard. Her mum was lonely; and good on her for flaunting it if she’s got it. This kind of thinking by Penny, the kind of judgmental/using what a woman wears or how skinny she is as a measurement of her worth, was what really annoyed me about her characterisation. In trying to be ‘edgy’, Choi just depicts Penny as being the stereotypical woman who considers herself to be in competition with every other woman ever. It’s boring, move on.
An example of an ‘edgy’ inner dialogue is the first instance in which Penny meets Sam at the cafe he works at. In a conversation about Sam, Jude and Mallory (Jude being Sam’s niece and Mallory being Jude’s best friend) talk about the possibility that Sam has broken up with his long-term girlfriend, as a result of some Insta-stalking. Jude then brings up how she was talking about Sam and his now possible ex-girlfriend with her therapist, and her therapist ‘thinks [Sam] is depressed’ whereby, Penny’s internal dialogue claims that, ‘If that were true, depression suited Sam’ (p. 56). Let’s just trivialise mental illness for a second and use it to describe a person’s attractiveness. Then you find out (TRIGGER WARNING) that Penny was sexually assaulted by a high school tutor and never told anyone. This is briefly mentioned in a conversation with Sam and then only ever referred to once afterwards, and I still don’t understand its importance. It does make Penny’s character more understandable, and she explains super briefly that her assault was the reason she resents her mother who did not know, but there is never any consideration of seeking help. Because it is an extremely traumatic event in any person’s life, and you can’t just talk about it briefly and then not bring it up again – mental health is incredibly important – but the entire event is kind of redundant in the scheme of the whole narrative.
It was strange.
Sam’s character was solid. I found him to be an honest, hardworking man who just kind of lost himself a bit. He also has mental health issues and childhood trauma that is kind of glossed over, which should have also been extrapolated upon because it enables the reader to really understand Sam’s character so much more, but that did not happen.
It was more focused on the romance, which is great I love a good romance, but trying to frame it as an ‘all you need is love and BAM it’s all good’ does not really sit well with me, but it may with other readers.
However, the one thing I applauded about Penny, and about Choi herself, is writing about the confrontation of micro-aggressions and everyday racism so incredibly well. It made me want to punch everyone and protect Penny from ignorant idiots and it made me so sad to think about how human beings treat other human beings. What kind of world to we live in? Choi forces us to engage with this question, which is great for a Young Adult novel to do with its readers.
For a feel-good romance between two people who, in this twisted world, find each other out of happenstance, Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi really is a wholesome romantic YA novel. I believe people who enjoy Rainbow Rowell, Nicola Yoon and Melissa De La Cruz, will adore this novel. So, I give Emergency Contact by Mary Choi a 3.5 out of 5 stars.
That’s it for today, friends! Be sure to check out the blog tour! Until next time, happy reading!
Mary H.K. Choi is a writer for The New York Times, GQ, Wired, and The Atlantic. She has written comics for Marvel and DC, as well as a collection of essays called Oh, Never Mind. She is the host of Hey, Cool Job!, a podcast about jobs, and is a culture correspondent for VICE News Tonight on HBO. Emergency Contact is her first novel. Mary grew up in Hong Kong and Texas and now lives in New York.
NOTE: I received a free copy from Simon & Schuster Australia in exchange for an honest and un-biased review.