[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.

Genre(s): New Adult, Contemporary, Romance
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Release date:
March 27, 2018
Book links*:
Goodreads | Book Depository | IndieBound

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

*These include affiliate links, which means that if you click through and buy a book I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. [Full disclaimers here.]

4.5 stars

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?”

Sam nodded.

“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.

I crashed Jayati and Charvi‘s buddy read, and they were very gracious about it. Thank you both, and Meeghan for your commentary!


24 thoughts on “[Review] Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi

  1. Your review really has me intrigued! I’d seen the cover in passing but hadn’t decided if I wanted to read it, but curiosity is getting the better of me after reading your thoughts and it’s always ten times more interesting when the MC(s) are not totally likable or relatable lol.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is such a lovely review and as I read through it, I ended up agreeing with all that you said.
    This book was different and flawed and that was something I really loved about it. Overall, yeah, the characters weren’t that likeable but they were pretty realistic. All of it coming together ended up giving me this sense of security in not knowing what sort of a mental health stage I am going through.
    I think it had this positive effect on me that I hadn’t thought it would’ve had.
    Also, the buddy read was a lot of fun even if you crashed it!
    (and joined late)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I feel like I remember hearing a lot of good things about this book when it first came out but now that more time has passed, the ratings are slowly declining. On a separate note though, you write such amazing reviews. Honestly, they are just awesome to read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hadn’t noticed that about the ratings, but then again I try not to pay too much attention to the buzz surrounding books that I intend to read until afterward 🤔 that’s something I’ve noticed with other books though – which I’m guessing has to do with marketing strategy and the way publishing works in general? the change in perception definitely makes reading backlist books interesting, though.

      and aw, thank you so much!! 💕


  4. I honestly feel the same about this one. It was an interesting story to read, and yeah, it’s definitely pretty edgy. I liked it, but it isn’t something I will be raving about constantly. I didn’t particularly like Penny for most of the book, but I did appreciate some of her quirks. Sam, on the other hand, I did enjoy reading about, and I liked how the texting portions of their relationship was handled. Great review! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What an interesting review. It sounds like there are definitely some good elements to the story, and that there are parts which are well written and provoke good thoughts and discussions. But I am not sure how I will get on with the unlikeable characters? I am also wary of their relationship. But I think I might give it a try… Hmmm…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it’s worth giving it a try if you’re unsure, you can always DNF! the characters did eventually grow on me because they’re definitely vivid (though yes, hard to like) and the story is pretty interesting – but of course it’s ultimately up to you 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you, Isabelle!

    Wow what a list of trigger warnings.. This book has been on my radar for a while, though a bit scared of the one bad review i’ve read about it.. but this make the balance fling for a « Read this!! » again.

    I specially like how, while agreeing you enjoyed the book – you however couldn’t recommend it to a younger audience because of the meaning & toxicity. Acknowledging the importance of our role but staying true to what you felt nonetheless- kudos to you 👏🏼

    Liked by 2 people

    1. thanks Kristina! I’m definitely team “content warnings / problematic content” doesn’t make a bad book, but it really does depend on the specific reader – which is definitely part of where reviews (and reviewers, like you say!) come in. if/when you read it, I hope you enjoy it too!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I loved this book (as you could probably tell from my endless screaming about it), but I absolutely agree with your points. It’s not for everybody, and I think I related to the characters because I was working in a pretty toxic environment when I read it. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I bought this book on a whim so I’m glad to hear good things about it. I didn’t know it was NA-age, but I feel like I’ll definitely relate to these characters more as an adult than I would have when I was sixteen. Great review 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Oooooo yes I have been waiting for your review (read: waiting for me to have the time to actually read the review after waiting for your review). I feel like the metaphors is something my AP english and composition teacher would appreciate a lot since she always tried to get me to write unique metaphors for my essays (a time was had though).

    Liked by 1 person

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