‘You’ve Reached Sam’ review: Dustin Thao depicts grieving through supernatural elements in his debut

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You’ve Reached Sam is a poignant debut that falls somewhere between paranormal contemporary and magical realism. Dustin Thao delves into the difficult emotions surrounding the loss of a loved one, and the question—what if you could speak to them one last time?

For 17-year-old Julie Clarke, this question becomes a reality. She and her boyfriend Sam have their whole future planned out—pursue their artistic dreams, take a trip to Japan over the summer, get out of their small town and move into their first apartment together. . . 

Struggling to let go

When Sam suddenly dies, all Julie wants to do is forget.  She gets rid of all his things, skips his funeral, and isolates herself. But when she sees a message he left in her yearbook, she calls his phone, desperate to hear his voicemail one last time. And somehow, Sam picks up the phone.

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Through a temporary connection, Julie has one last chance to say goodbye to Sam. But the more phone calls they have, the more difficult it becomes for Julie to let go. Even worse, she struggles to keep their connection a secret at risk of losing their phone calls and Sam forever.

The premise behind You’ve Reached Sam is brilliant, especially in its exploration of grief through supernatural elements. The writing is captivating and beautifully done, immediately drawing readers into imaginative and well-developed scenes.

I enjoyed reading the relationships in the book, which were complex and realistic. Especially when those in Julie’s life notice her retreating into herself, but respond by giving her the appropriate space to heal while also emphasizing their determination to help her move on and cope with loss. 

You’ve Reached Sam is about the words we wish we’d had the opportunity to say to those loved ones we’ve lost. But it is also about coping with grief and understanding how to move on with life in their absence, while still remembering them.

As Dustin Thao himself stated in the recent TYF interview, “Letting go isn’t about forgetting. It’s balancing moving forward with life, and looking back from time to time, remembering the people in it.” Julie’s journey in coping with grief throughout the book is one that speaks to these difficult and personal questions.


Complex characterizations and explorations

While I found You’ve Reached Sam to be a beautifully written exploration of grief, there were some elements that I wish could have been further developed in the book. For example, since the book was largely focused on the theme of grieving and the contemporary YA elements, the supernatural elements were less fleshed out. While this focus makes sense, some more world-building could have leaned more into the magical realism elements without drawing away from the story. Especially since the book is not particularly plot-heavy. 

In regards to characterization, there were some elements that could have been more strongly constructed. Sam’s character felt less well-rounded, and understandably so. Since the difficulty in building Sam’s character lies in his characterization largely through phone calls and nostalgic memories, the introduction of a more complex representation later on in the book feels a bit abrupt.

Julie herself wasn’t a particularly likable character, but the more important issue was that some of her behavior was a bit difficult to understand—even in the flashbacks preceding Sam’s death. Considering You’ve Reached Sam was written from her perspective, drawing out her thought processes more clearly in the narrative could make her easier to connect to apart from the empathy readers have for her grieving process. Additionally, the side characters such as Mika and Oliver were well-developed, and I would love to see more of them and their perspectives in the story. 

An impactful debut

Overall, You’ve Reached Sam is an impactful debut. The question at the center of the book and the paranormal premise combine to create a narrative full of heart. 


You’ve Reached Sam by Dustin Thao was released on November 9, 2021. Read our interview with the author here.


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