As far as Young Adult dramas go, Mary H.K. Choi’s first attempt runs the gamut. It covers everything from unwanted pregnancy to class division, from racism to absent parents.
In typical Young Adult contemporary style, Choi’s novel gets us started with a pair of young people, unknown to each other, at a turning point in their lives. Penelope Lee is on her way to university for the first time, attempting to take a break from her overly involved, too cool to be allowed mom. Sam is attempting recovery on his own, from alcoholism, a toxic relationship, and a break with his mom who has been less than motherly to him.
For a first effort, Emergency Contact is a job well done. While it veers off into tropes far more often that I would like, it hits the important ideas of friendship, mental health, trauma, and suffering in silence with a clear and well articulated style that lets the reader know which parts are really important to pay attention to. Penny’s belief that no one really cares about her all that much is a feeling that a lot of university students might relate to. She has trouble making friends because she thinks people are just being nice.
Much of the deep conversation in Emergency Contact takes place in the form of text messages. The “pen pal” set up is not new; authors have been using letters to connect their characters for ages (remember Dracula?) and in contemporary fiction, email and instant messaging have become the norm. Penny and Sam take it to another level though, one that young people today would identify with. If you’ve ever found yourself having a conversation over text with someone and a separate conversation in person, you’ll know what I’m talking about here. Penny and Sam start out by treating each other like they don’t exist. They are just a text on a phone to each other, and while they develop an intimate and personal connection, they do it primarily by ignoring the physical existence of the other person. When they are forced together in real life, they have difficulty communicating and even admitting that their friendship exists.
Over time, each character is forced to confront the reality of their lives and their situations, instead of just hiding in their phones and on the internet, two things I myself have done extensively throughout my post-secondary career. It’s easier for a while, Choi points out, but in the end reality is still there waiting for you and if you ignore it for too long, terrible things can go down. The side-quest style story-within-a-story that Penny writes for a short fiction class parallels the main story line, but hits the nail on the head a little harder.
Emergency Contact just ends, but that’s not a bad thing. The main characters reach the sort of resolution that lets you know that things go on, beyond the end of the book. Normally this is something that would bother me. No big resolution to the big problems. However, in this case it feels right. The big problems of our lives tend to continue beyond our little episodes of drama and Choi captures that well. The little things wrap up and there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s clear that these characters are going to move on. Young people need to see that happening, rather than the typical teen TV drama wrap up in which the main characters never talk about what happened last season ever again.
Overall, Emergency Contact is a mid-quality young adult novel that covers high-quality topics in a way that is far more effective than some more established writers. Her novel will suck you in, but its relatively low page count will make sure that you come out the other side without having missed too much of reality. If you’ve got the time, knock this one out in one or two sittings and then go outside and talk to people. Real people. In real life.
Mary H.K. Choi is a first-time novelist but has written for GQ, Wired, The New York Times, and The Atlantic, as well as writing comics for both DC and Marvel. Emergency Contact is available March 27 from Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers
Note: an advanced reader copy of Emergency Contact was provided to me free of charge by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.