Book Review : Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. Choi

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.

Shoutout to Sara @bibliophagist for recommending this book to me!

First things first, I love pop culture references and this book had plenty of it. The conversations between Sam and Penny were my favorite part. I loved how they talked about anything and everything – from random idiosyncratic to profound matters. The author did a great job building up their connection. It was clear these two were meant to be.

I wasn’t particularly impressed with the trajectory of their relationship, though. SPOILER AHEAD – At one point, Sam & Penny don’t communicate for two weeks after Sam has a breakdown all by himself due to a shock. Penny doesn’t know that and thinks that Sam has moved on just because he doesn’t call her after promising to. It’s not until he gets his shit back together and sends her an e-mail with an apology that they get back to normal. I had a hard time reconciling the fact that Penny doesn’t try reaching out to Sam even once in two weeks and just resigns herself to the fact that their friendship is over.

I loved the fact that Penny is of Korean descent and Sam of German-Polish. Can I also say that Sam not having a perfect physique impressed me? But I was kinda hoping to see their cultural roots being explored more à la Lara Jean and was disappointed when that didn’t happen. But that’s fine. What’s fine isn’t how the character Penny is written.

Lord knows how much I love flawed characters. I’ve liked my share of rebellious, anti-social teenage characters. In fact, I look forward to such characters in YA. But Penny? She’s mighty flawed. She’s also equally unlikable. Her double standards pissed me off. She calls people out for being racist towards her but is herself judgemental towards almost everyone. In fact, the only character she was consistently nice towards was Sam. Her irrational disdain towards everyone just got on my nerves.

Penny is a teenager. She’s supposed to find her mom annoying and fight with her. That’s normal. But the way Penny is so judgemental of her mother? That’s not normal. At the beginning, Penny’s disdain made me feel that there might be more to the story here and that the mom might be abusive or negligent. But that wasn’t so.

There’s a part where Penny gets a call about her mom being in the hospital. She hangs up before the person can elaborate and panics the entire way to the hospital about her mom being possibly dead. Just when I thought she couldn’t get any more unreasonable, what she does after arriving in the hospital proved me wrong.

At the end, there is plot twist that is supposed to explain Penny’s attitude. But I think that this plot device could’ve been more effectively executed because I was left underwhelmed by the discovery and my feelings towards Penny remained unchanged.

The only times I liked Penny were in association with Sam and their cute conversations. I’d have loved this book a lot more if there was more of their cuteness together and less of Penny being a whiny brat.

My Rating: ★★★☆☆