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.
Representation: Korean-American MC, single mothers, socioeconomic diversity, MC with anxiety (panic attacks)
Content warnings: (click to show)
slut-shaming, bullying, ableist language, toxic relationships, possibly codependent relationship, unwanted/unintentional pregnancy & discussion of abortion, mentioned miscarriage, mentioned rape, underage drinking, mentioned drug use, mentioned alcohol abuse, mentioned child neglect, on-page panic attack
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So here’s the thing. “Like,” “love,” or “enjoy” are not good words for my reaction to reading this; though it strongly appeals to the cynical, misanthropic, more-than-a-little-pretentious sixteen-year-old part of myself, I could not in good conscience recommend it to that same sixteen-year-old, who was not in a good headspace (or to sixteen-year-olds in general; but I’m not your mom, read what you think you can handle). I ended up giving it 4.5 out of 5 for impact and memorability, but the jury is still out on whether I enjoyed this.
All that said, it’s unique and unapologetic — you know what, I’m just going to say it: this book is edgy.
“My therapist says I think everyone’s always mad at me. It’s equal parts my upbringing and my egocentrism.”
I would definitely consider this NA rather than YA, not just because the protagonists are college-aged but also because it deals with a number of dark themes and it’s incredibly messy in the most realistic way. It’s about two new adults (if I recall correctly, Penny is 18, Sam 21) who had to grow up too fast, yet haven’t figured out how to interact with human people. Some scenes — most notably Penny’s writing and certain developments in their relationship — are a little reminiscent of Fangirl, though that could just be because I haven’t read a ton of NA-aged protagonists; the tone is completely different, for what it’s worth.
As many other reviewers have noted, this book handles the texting portions really well. The formatting is easily readable, and the syntax is believable: none of the indecipherable acronyms or pseudo-leetspeak that so often characterizes digital exchanges in fiction. At the same time, there are some slang terms and references that left me confused, though I’m not sure if they’re regional, just too contrived, or I was just never cool enough (even as a teen) to understand them.
Which is not to say that the writing is objectively bad! Honestly I couldn’t decide if I loved or hated it, because it’s very distinctive — lots of unique metaphors, such as
Penny would rather eat a pound of hair than reveal her true emotions.
(As you can probably tell, it’s very much not for everyone. But that’s always the case when something is so different from what you’re used to.)
And the characters are all extremely vivid, though I don’t consider them especially complex; each of them has individual neuroses and backstory that gives them dimension and makes their motives and behavior more understandable. I identified with some oddly specific quirks, like how Penny tells stories all out of order and asks questions that are seemingly unrelated to the current conversation — my mom doesn’t call it “speaking Isabelle,” but she has called it out. (A lot.)
“You know how Penny’s from a different planet?”
“So if you like that one, where the hell else are you going to find another one?”
Penny and Sam are both super judgmental and honestly fairly pretentious, and quite frankly they’re not likable people, or the kind of characters that I want to relate to. And to be quite honest, I’m not completely comfortable with the progression of their relationship — they definitely have a strong connection, call it chemistry or codependence or just straight-up lust … but as intense and engaging as it is to read, I certainly wouldn’t consider it a model of an ideal or healthy relationship.
So seriously, I’m not sure how I feel about this book. But I can say that I don’t regret having read it, and if it sounds like your cup of tea I would give it a chance.