Meet Penny, a young, quiet, and firmly independent woman heading to college to begin paving the path towards her goal of becoming a writer, as well as escape the exhaustion of parenting her own mother. Meet Sam, a college dropout who appears to be on permanent pause in life; once fueled by the dream of becoming a film director, he now lives in a storage room and bakes at a coffee-shop, and appears to be on his last legs as he tries to keep himself afloat financially and personally. A chance encounter at Sam’s coffee-shop has these two randomly meeting, and once they reach the point of exchanging numbers, they remain in touch exclusively by texting.
In an intertwined story told between alternating chapters dedicated to their separate perspectives, Mary H.K. Choi’s Emergency Contact tells the tale of a tentative relationship blossoming through the aid of the digital world.
Unsurprisingly, much of this novel’s fixation is on technology: Penny venturing through Apple stores, Sam worry about his laptop, the two of them texting, the works. Choi makes an intriguing choice when it comes to the format of her debut novel as well, combining prose with a texting layout as these two characters converse with one another throughout the story. A large chunk of the novel is dedicated to the text conversations Sam and Penny share, and while the friendship and eventual relationship between Penny and Sam thrives online, it begs the interesting question of whether such a deep connection between two individuals can survive off-screen and in-person.
Penny and Sam’s interactions can be construed as quippy and witty, and the progression of their friendship is witnessed in how they handle future conversations; in a way, their conversations are not that different from normal, every-day conversations we all have with our friends via digital messaging. Even the individual thought processes of Sam and Penny, away from the screen, were hilariously relatable, from Penny’s tendency to mentally create lists that consist of a variety of reactions to social situations, to the intrusive thoughts and ideas that run amok in Sam’s mind.
However, while these characters have their likable moments and traits, my inability to truly connect with them made the story difficult to continue reading. There is an unfortunate, almost black-and-white, distinction made between Sam and Penny and the secondary characters who surround them, many of them portraying an exaggerated, painful rendition of the “oh-my-gawd” popular character in pop culture circulating around the high school/college setting. This lack of diversity in personalities was a bit of a let-down, as well as Choi’s decision to flood her pages with an obtuse amount of pop culture references; the sheer amount of these references really felt as though Choi was driving home the concept of this being a “young adult” novel and trying to relate to modern teenagers/young adults without letting her natural writing talent do that for her.
There are improvements to be made if Choi is to continue writing within the young adult genre. Emergency Contact, while a great premise and an intriguing take on the modern relationship, can be learned from. There is no denying that Choi has promise within this field of writing, and hopefully she applies what she learns to future endeavors.
Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi is now available wherever books are sold.