Novel: Emergency Contact by Mary M.K. Choi | Goodreads
Release Date: March 27, 2018
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
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.
It’s taken me a few tries to get into Emergency Contact despite knowing it’s a book I’d enjoy. In high school and college, I’ve had a pen pal who has been a great resource, and I recognize the value of having an out-of-context person to talk to sometimes.
Emergency Contact is a college-age book, and cheerfully detaches the main characters from the panic and exhilaration of attending for the first time. In a way that reminds me of its closest counterpart Fangirl, Emergency Contact showcases characters who would rather commentate than participate. Although the pretension and the holier-than-thou attitudes could be frustrating, the tone worked for the book.
The plot was not larger than life. It dealt with the normal, or sometimes stressful, situations — not getting along with a parent, working through something for class, navigating friendships, lukewarm relationships. I had knots in my back all the way through reading this because the characters were all so anxious and brooding about things. But truthfully, a lot of their college stress felt familiar, as well as the concept of desiring an “emergency contact” throughout it all. As many of my friends can attest, I’m a texter.
It rings especially true to read over the summer on the days when my phone is perpetually glued to my hand. When I’m texting back and forth with somebody just for the sake of talking.
Penny was a dark, messy, adultish teenager who kept a lot of her life a secret. She dealt with her svelte mother’s childish antics, often with an eye roll and some self-pity. Still, she was passionate and weird and sometimes funny. She warmed up to people more over the course of the book than she had before. She was unlikable as hell though — kind of a jerk, and probably the most judgmental character I’ve read in a while. Also, she was so mean to her high school boyfriend!
Sam was a broke, confused kid working in a coffeeshop, baking pastries and attempting to make films. He dealt with a psychotic — yet magnetic — ex-girlfriend who wouldn’t give him a straight answer on whether or not she was pregnant.
One part that I really appreciated about Emergency Contact was that Sam was unsure whether or not he was an alcoholic. His relationship with alcohol — passed down from his selfish mother — was complicated but not dramatized, weaving in and out of his life depending on adjacent problems. His position is one that speaks to me (not personally) as a witness to college kids in similar situations.
The writing put together hyper-realistic, slightly mundane scenes and situations. It was good, but I don’t think it ever leapt up to great. That surprised me because Penny, our girl, wanted to be a writer but always seemed rather plainspoken. It felt like many of the descriptions could have been wildly condensed. There’s a definite difference between wanting to paint something real and including unnecessary details. The pace occasionally seemed too slow. Although it was stressful, I wished that it had packed more of a punch.
The whole point, it seemed, of Emergency Contact was to paint a portrait of two kids navigating new adulthood in sweet yet searingly awkward ways. I sympathized with Penny, but I never really liked her — she seemed to view herself as much more mature than she was. Sam was good, but could have been less apathetic to everything going on around him at any given time.
Part of my slight distaste to me is as a reader desiring a bit more propriety. I never like bathroom humor or awkwardness that doesn’t seem to serve a purpose (although I’m often rather awkward myself.)
Ultimately, I liked the journey that the characters experienced. I enjoyed the proportion of truth in the exchanges between Penny and Sam — and related to the thrill of a text popping up on your phone. Penny could have been less abrasive and judgmental, and there could have been a lot more honest connection between the two towards the end rather than simply shared familiarity. But although I shy away from writing that shares too much information, I did enjoy the intimacy of the read. I liked bits of it — like the Mallory and Jude friendship, and the explanation for how that started to include Penny. The jadedness of the characters and the situations just made me kind of sad.
I feel like this is a book that will appeal to people for its weirdness, but I think it was a little too much for me. Like Penny’s backstory was rarely hinted at and then suddenly dropped, and I didn’t think that was particularly well done. And while the characters like each other, it feels too random and not like the two have any reason to feel connected. But I do like how the main point of the book is NOT a romance, although it is about the skeleton of one being laid out. It felt really underdeveloped as a whole though.
So, in summary: this book wasn’t for me, and I both really liked it and somewhat disliked it at the same time. Still, I could see how it might appeal to others, especially those who like everything a little unpolished.