( Review originally posted November 21, 2018)
“My girlfriend’s pregnant.” He said suddenly, startling himself.
Penny tilted her head.
“Well, she’s my ex.”
“Whoa,” she breathed.
“Yeah. I still love her though.”
“She cheated on me.”
“Wow,” she said.
Penny’s fingers inched towards his. Sam thought for a fleeting moment that she would hold his hand, but instead, she went for a couple of cashews and was extra careful to avoid touching him.
“The first one is the worst. By a lot,” she said crunching.
Sam wasn’t sure if she was talking about panic attacks or pregnant ex-girlfriends. Not that it mattered…-Emergency Contact, page 106-
The well of slice-of-life stories is deep. It tries to handle the tough stuff that young people go through as they transition into the adult world. But, very few are capable of capturing what is truly sought after in order to find the real world.
The ability to connect to the world is a much sought-after thing that is often described as fitting in, being great, or even falling in love…
But sometimes Connection is just finding a way to live.
Emergency Contact is a contemporary YA that follows Penny and Sam. Penny is an off-putting and sometimes endearingly awkward eighteen-year-old college student pursuing her passion to be a writer. Sam is a twenty-year-old barista/baker living above a café and trying to get his life together.
By chance, they meet through Jude, Sam’s sort of niece (marriage is strange like that), and while they regard each other with mutual attraction neither are permitted to indulge in it. For Penny, she suffers crippling anxiety about even remotely considering the option and Jude insists none of her “friends” try to date her “Uncle Sam”. For Sam, the idea that anyone who is friends with Jude – whom he still views as a little girl – is far too young for him and he certainly has no desire to complicate his life with anyone. It doesn’t help when his ex-girlfriend Lorraine’s positive pregnancy test crashes into his barely stable life.
Both Penny and Sam are trapped in limbos of their own personal making and only manage to communicate further due to Same collapsing in the park and Penny happening to be in the area to help him. She gets him in the car after he refuses to go to the emergency room and they discover it was a panic attack. Thanks to Penny and her magical doomsday bag, Sam is able to calm down. This is when it is revealed that Sam’s ex is pregnant, and Penny is just like “…Word?”
They exchange numbers, beginning their roles as Emergency Contacts (Title Drop!). They text back and forth as the throes of life test just how stubborn their holds on their personal limbos. Both are forced to grow up and discover that there is more than just their own personal hells and that escalation is the only way to escape the boundaries of their closed-off worlds.
I initially picked up this book because the rose-gold cover caught my eye and the art further intrigued me. It wasn’t because it was good but because of the position of the characters. A girl and a boy who seemed to come from two different walks of life, curled tightly and safely away from each other at opposite ends of the cover while staring at their phones with what can be described as vulnerably open expressions. The title, of course, showed me they were communicating with each other, but the image expressed a sort of disconnection. I was curious. I took it, wondering if these two would ever cross the distance shown in the image and what kept them safely staring at their phones away from each other.
In short, this is what you would call a very successful cover.
I began to read the first chapter – a thing that I do when I’m searching for something new to read – the first thing I was presented with was a surprisingly sad but comical scene with Penny going to buy her first iPhone. Her mother, whom Penny describes as an airheaded MILF whom she is burdened to keep an eye on, is being flirted with by several men whom she gives attention to despite the fact it was meant to be Penny’s day. She was leaving for college soon and she wanted her mother to be her mother. This sets a standard in which for a while, I thought Penny was being a bit of a jerk, but at the same time, I understood her teenage mindset. I became interested in the very light tone this was taken in and wanted to see just what Penny’s problem was. So naturally, it went into my book haul.
It starts out quirky, humorous and then… it suddenly gets very, very real. It wasn’t an overdramatized telling of one bad day after the other until someone collapsed in a nervous breakdown. Rather, it was a realistic idea of what living a life of troubles you are forced to handle alone is really like, how you cope, and what kind of person it makes you in the long run without help.
From Sam’s codependency on his emotionally abusive and gaslighting ex-girlfriend to the serious paranoia towards physical interaction and seemingly inexplicable anger penny feels towards her mother whom Penny lives with every day. These are things they have never been able to or allowed to express to anyone. Choi presents these real things happening to real young people and everyone who is hated and blamed for them right up until they realize that it’s okay. That they’re strong enough and not broken, allowing them to deal with and most importantly to move past it at their own pace. At the very least, allowing them to start living rather than just surviving.
Choi does such an amazing job drawing upon the uniqueness of human character through Penny and Sam. It is very important that neither of them is a “too good for this world” cinnamon roll trope and that they have done nothing wrong. In fact, they’ve done plenty, but there are reasons. Not excuses, reasons. They are flawed individuals who are very capable of hurting the people around them with their dependency on their constructed limbos and, while they find help in each other, they forget those around them in the whirlwind who are truly trying to help, trying to get in, and trying to be their friend. Despite this, I feel that Penny and Sam would’ve never grown to understand the backlash that came in the wake of their communications had they never connected and helped to put each other’s worlds into perspective. Through each other, they realized they needed to do something, that it was them that needed to change.
In this way, they grew up.
The main theme of Emergency Contact is not the adorable and somewhat bittersweet slow-burn that is Sam and Penny’s romance. The main theme is growth. Realizing that maybe you are not the only one who has it that bad, but at the same time, your pain is not invalidated. Maybe, just maybe there are people around you willing to help you and there are people trying their hardest to be there for you, but you can’t see it because of your own toxicity that you hold onto because you could never believe someone would listen. Worse, you would never believe that it didn’t make you less of a person, that it didn’t make you broken. And Worst, you believe people are as bad as you have told yourself they are.
It’s actually a very beautiful study of real life that forces you to notice context, notice the characters’ actions, quirks, the way they speak, their mannerism so that when you discover why they are the way they are, it hits you that much harder because just like them, you are probably dealing with something that no one knows about and that you feel you can’t share. The most important thing is that there is no grandstanding, no sweeping narrative, there’s no plot twist or love triangle. There are only the people. There are only the experiences and they come together in a surprisingly solid narrative about two young people going through their lives.
Emergency Contact urges you to be okay and urges you that no matter how you connect to the world, your experience is valid and that its okay to be angry, sad, or even not very well put together because, in the end, we all connect with the living world when we’re ready for it and when we do, we find happiness we didn’t think we needed. But most importantly, it shows that things do not wrap up neatly in a tight bow. It shows that not everything can be instantly fixed, it takes time to find that equanimity in life where as long as you keep moving forward, you can always get better.
I’ve heard many people mention how “lame” the teen talk is in this book and I just assume that no one realizes there are people who talk like this? Like, there are literally some extra-ass teens out here that will say some weird shit like smitten mittens kittens. Most reviews I’ve seen for research on the reactions to this book talk about the slang is trying hard and Choi is trying to show that she’s down with the teen vernacular. I think people forget that slang, no matter the age, varies from area to area and state to state much like accents do. Funnily enough, I live outside of Houston, and some of us talk like this, but the slang varies with age and which part of the area you’re from.
Then there’s the weird shit Penny says sometimes, but I don’t think that’s really “teen talk.” I believe that’s her own eccentric way of communicating that is meant to highlight just how “other” she is among normal people. The only person who seems to follow her “language” is Sam. This is something common in nearly every person. In that regard, Choi is highlighting and diversifying the characters by having the way they talk be unique. You would always know if Mallory is talking, you would always know if Jude is talking, you would always know if it’s Sam. That’s actually a pretty positive thing since a problem in writing is that people sound the same.
In context, the slang and such makes sense and most major cities in Texas are surprisingly behind on what’s cool slang and what’s not – even more so considering slang changes for every second a tweet is published.
Now, the writing, however, is something we can talk about.
The book is skeletal, which suits the themes and story it is trying to tell. It’s simple and barebones so that you aren’t distracted from the point and that is the gentle but blunt honestly between Sam and Penny. Strangely, that works so well with the slice-of-life style. It does have a few points where it could’ve been filled in more and perhaps better detailed. I personally would’ve loved a bit more about the minor characters. However, the fact that with Jude, Mallory, Lorraine, and Penny’s mom being so far into the background and ineffectual right up until they weren’t in the context of the book hammers home just how self-absorbed Penny and Sam were in their misery and just how unfair that was for the people around them. (Or in Sam’s case, how easy it was to get swept up into Lorraine’s toxicity.) Choi doesn’t go into severe detail until it truly means something and even then, its always from the perspective of Penny and Sam. The limitation in that style draws a great example of how despite all of what’s going on around us, we can’t see outside our own lives either falling apart or unfortunately, our own cynicism forcing us to see danger everywhere.
Choi writes this story in a way that I haven’t seen in such a long time and it’s not about the drama, it’s not about the romance, it’s not about the heavy stuff. It’s not even about that pretty ass rose-gold cover.
It’s about how life is not pretty and rarely ends neatly wrapped, but maybe something good can sprout from it if you give yourself the chance to see outside the misery.
Choi drives that point home well.
It is very noticeable that this is her first time in fiction and while she certainly has a great understanding of people and heavy, true-to-life issues, there’s still a very novice feel to her prose. I feel she’s limited herself too much in this novel because there’s something secretly great hidden – you will notice in Penny’s small writings about the Anima. The limited perspectives of the characters focus and work well in this story, but I can’t imagine it allowing her to branch out further. If she continues writing, then she will improve because the skill, talent, and creativity are certainly there. I hope she takes the time to fine-tune and develop it. There is so much potential for her to become a fiction favorite and I hope to get more from her in bigger and more detailed stories and more oh-so-real characters.
Nothing. There’s nothing. Like for real. There’s nothing problematic about this book.
Let’s unpack this real quick.
There is a growing culture in the BookTube Community and book blogs where as long as there is something heavy within a piece of fiction then there’s a high chance that it will be called out for being problematic. It’s a term slung around so often in the book world that at this point it’s become its own genre. There’s a serious problem in that particular bit of calling out and that’s Context.
Emergency Contact tackles some real shit that, going into this book, I recommend you do your own research on because I don’t particularly trigger warn. If you’re reading this book from start to finish there is absolutely no reason for you not to notice when you’re about to run into something heavy and, even then, it is handled easily and concisely.
The potential problematic issues dealt with are slut-shaming, toxic masculinity, body image issues, racism, abuse, alcoholism, and the common denominator in most of the reviews, sexual assault. When I tell you that, it makes you very, very wary of picking up this book to read. This is because you have no context for these things and most reviews do not provide enough context considering it’s a novel worth of character development and events behind these things. So it’s hard not to see these things in negativity.
So, let’s give it some context:
*Minor Spoiler and Trigger Warning!*
Slut-shaming is Penny calling her mom a MILF and complaining about how oblivious she is to the men who creep on her. Also, a bully calling Penny’s mom a whore right in front of her while said bully’s married dad flirts with Penny’s mom. You learn later why Penny is so wary of this and why she views every interaction as a girl asking to get hurt. This is realized when Penny finally admits that it isn’t about her mother.
Toxic Masculinity is Sam’s constant but subtle degradation of himself because he feels he’s supposed to be manly. He’s supposed to be tough and want to beat up other guys or even want to be buff to be more attractive because that’s what’s been projected on him by those around him. It is also expected of him because he’s older despite him being sensitive, emotional, and very much a passionate romantic – traits that aren’t particularly held high in stereotypical men. This is mainly due to the lack of role models and constantly being looked down upon by Lorraine for crying when they broke up and even cited his being emotional was the reason she would often get bored with him.
Body Image Issues are Penny and Sam’s discomfort with their own skin and view themselves as undesirable.
Racism is Penny’s boyfriend merely dating her because she’s Asian and fetishizing her as well as other men sexualizing her mother.
Abuse is Sam’s childhood under his mother and, further, his liquor-fueled relationship with Lorraine.
Alcoholism is Sam’s inability to cope and sometimes having a weakness – something, unfortunately, he inherited from his mother through her toxic behaviors.
Sexual Assault is Penny’s recollection of her rape by her tutor when she was just barely a teen and her inability to deal with it outside of herself because not only did she feel she caused it by having a juvenile crush on the man, but she was angry because her mother was asleep upstairs when it happened – having left them alone. Her mother was always her friend, but never her mother when she needed her, and Penny felt she could never rely on her because of this, especially after this happened.
With context, these are not things put in for shock value, nor do they go unaddressed by the material itself. Each of these things shows what type of people the characters are, what they’ve been through, and why they are the way they are. These are not problematic things. These are human things. Things that do happen in all too real ways. Therefore full context matters in fiction so much and why these types of things shouldn’t be cherry-picked as automatically creating a terrible book simply because they contain these things.
Emergency Contact is one of the best YAs I’ve read in a long time. It delivers on a quality of Contemporary and Slice of Life and hell even in just fiction that I don’t get very often with YA these days and breaks many of the tropes that I have come to understand as law in the YA world. That is – to say the least—refreshing. The gentleness in which Sam and Penny handle each other in an age where sometimes text is the best way to learn a person’s context and know who they are outside of what they appear is something beautiful. Sometimes knowing someone else out there exists who can and will listen to you and believe you and your experiences are valid gives you the courage and the strength to validate yourself and finally join the world that was always yours.
2 thoughts on “It Counts… Emergency Contact by Mary HK Choi”
Great review! I’ve been wanting to get into Mary H. K. Choi, but never knew where to start. This seems like a good one.
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This was her debut so definitely start here. It’s so good and I really just love everything she writes honestly!