Emergency Contacty is a YA debut novel by Mary H.K. Choi. She is a Korean-American author who has by now also written her second novel Permanent Record. My friend Libby lend me this book to read something ‘light’ because we were both on a streak of fairly heavy feminist non-fiction books and the break was welcomed. I think that is also why I enjoyed reading this one quite a bit. Now I’ll say right away that I’m definitely no expert when it comes to the genre YA. I think I’ve read a handful of YA books in my life, but recently I’ve encountered more YA books that have caught my attention because the topics are so good (for example about abortion in Onverwacht by Jenni Hendriks and Ted Caplan).
This book revolves around two characters: Penny and Sam. Both of them have complications in their lives, some of them typical for their age and some not so much. Penny meets Sam through her new roommate Jude. She finds him attractive immediately but her self-esteem is low and she doesn’t think she has a chance. Then, she encounters Sam when he is having a full-on panic attack in the street. After driving him home, she gives him her number in case of emergencies (hence the title). When Penny checks in on Sam they start texting daily. The novel alternates between two perspectives to give you both sides of the story.
I thought – also judging by the beautiful cover – that it would be your typical girl meets boy, falls in love, cliché story. I was surprised about the depth that this book had. Sam and Penny deal with quite a few heavy topics such as alcoholism, sexual assault, anxiety and depression. I like it when YA books cover such topics because I think it’s important for teenagers to know they are not alone in dealing with these issues. I also enjoyed the slow pace that the romance between Penny and Sam takes. The development was enjoyable. I love how Choi wrote a book with a Korean-American main character in it. Obviously I wouldn’t have included this book on the blog if I didn’t think it, in some way, represented marginalized people. I haven’t encountered many books with a Korean-American main character (I’m sure they are out there though) but I like to see this kind of diversity more.
On the note of representation, I would like to criticize this book on it as well. I would have liked it if Sam would’ve been a person of colour as well. The other day, one of my friends posted on Instagram that she wished Hollywood would come to the realization that interracial couples don’t need to include a white person. I hadn’t quite stopped to think about this before and now I cannot unsee it. Indeed a lot of the times, not only in movies but also in books, interracial couples include a white person. This is why I am disappointed that Sam is a white boy. Creating this character with a different ethnicity would have added some bonus points for me to the book.
Normally I don’t look at other people’s reviews before writing my own but for this one, I was too curious and I read a few on Goodreads. Some I did and some I didn’t agree with. I saw a lot of reviews mentioning how they didn’t like Penny, but I think she was a well-rounded character who has all of these insecurities and walls put up. It made her more real and less of a stereotype. What made her less likeable – if you ask me – is that she shames her mother for having a sex life and flirting with men. I understand being a teen and feeling embarrassed, but she really went too far with this. The times when I did like Penny a lot was when she stood up for herself or went into feminist ideas, like calling out how sexist the names given to lipstick colours can be. The moments I liked her the most was when she called Mallory (her roommate Jude’s best friend) out on her racist comments. Mallory was a majorly problematic character, and I could not (and still cannot) understand why Penny would stand to be with her in one room for more than one second. Initially, Penny hates her guts as well but she warms up to her and I didn’t understand the point. Mallory was like one of those mean girls at high school that I would have avoided at all costs.
I felt a little bit too old for the book because I kept thinking ‘get off your phone and just meet already’. Although I do understand how much easier it is to say things digitally – I am from the MSN generation after all. I had flashbacks to staying up all night talking to my crush on MSN and asking him nonsensical questions just to keep talking. That’s also what Penny and Sam do, but then via text. Overall, I enjoyed reading this book as a break from more serious books, and I liked that it still hit some important topics such as racism, sexism and how Asian people get stereotyped.
I would like to add the trigger warnings for the book just in case: sexual assault, alcoholism, racism, sexism, anxiety, depression, panic attacks.