A few weeks ago, while sitting around and browsing Instagram instead of doing whatever I was supposed to be doing, I saw a post from Rainbow Rowell talking about a book coming out soon from an author that she loves, and mentioned Emergency Contact. I hadn’t heard of it before, and Rainbow claimed was her favorite book of 2018! Rainbow went on and on, talking about how excited she was for the new book and how much she loved EC, and I just said WHAT HOW WHEN and ordered it immediately.
I’m so glad I did. It was just what I needed to fill the Rainbow-sized hole in my life (WAYWARD SON, I’M WAITING FOR YOU).
Penny (that’s short for Penelope) is about to start her freshman year in college in Austin, Texas. She wants to become a writer and can’t wait to move away from high school, her hometown, her boyfriend, and her mother. She has a new roommate, Jude, who immediately wants to wrap Penny up into her life and brings her out for coffee within minutes of her arrival.
They go to a quirky coffee shop near campus, because Jude’s former uncle-by-marriage, Sam, works there. Sam’s mom was married to Jude’s grandfather for a few years when they were kids, but he’s only a few years older than she is.
Sam is struggling. He’s recently dumped, living on a mattress in a tiny room over the coffee shop, and close to broke. He’s too skinny, covered in tattoos, smokes too much, and needs a haircut. And Penny thinks he is beautiful.
When Sam’s ex tells him that she might be pregnant, he goes into a full-on panic. He collapses in the street, freaking out about money and fatherhood, and Penny finds him slumped over in the street and brings him home. And thus becomes his emergency contact.
Sam and Penny text and call each other almost constantly. They become phone friends, and text each other all of the secrets in their lives that they can’t share with anyone else. They each slowly realize that the other has become the most important person in their lives, and are unsure how to handle that. And I loved every stupid minute of it.
It’s a glorious depiction of what it feels like to leave home and go to college. I remember how Penny felt, and I expect to feel the complete opposite of that when my oldest goes to college in three years (yikes.)
“In the short while she’d been at college – a seemingly negligible sliver of time – her brain reset. The routine rhythms of her old life were booted from her operating system. Sure she missed having kimchi in the fridge or a Costco stash of triple-ply toilet paper stored above a washer and dryer you could operate for free, but whenever her mother texted or when Mark called, the interruption was staggering. Mind-blowing. She may as well have been getting messages from the spirit world. It was inconceivable that both college and home operated on the same space-time.”
Its also an enlightening look at what it means to struggle financially when you are surrounded by people who don’t give money a second thought. Penny and her mom have struggled and worked hard to get Penny to college, but they aren’t destitute by any means. But Sam? Sam is poor. His relationship with his mother is completely ruined after she opened up tons of credit cards in his name (without his permission) and maxxed them out in order to feed her shopping addiction. When he took legal action to try and keep his credit in check, she disowned him. And they are surrounded by massive wealth everywhere they look in Austin.
“Twombly, the condo across the street from campus, was not officially affiliated with the college. It functioned as a dorm, and there was a cafeteria, though it more closely resembled luxury apartments that served as tax shelters for Russian oligarchs. Its inhabitants were affluent enough that college degrees were a quaint diversion, a short-lived pretense that they were just like everybody else. It was a rich-kid rumspringa, that rite of passage for Amish people, except instead of living with electricity, the wealthy scions slummed by majoring in journalism.”
And yet, as hipster as Austin is, we never forget that this is still Texas.
“From the highway, the neon signs in order read: CHINESE FOOD, DONUTS, JUICE, then GUNS. Juice was the only hipster outlier. Everything else was as common as corn bread.”
Both Sam and Penny want to create art. Sam makes documentaries (I loved his little side plot with the skater kids) and Penny writes science fiction (I didn’t love her side plot quite as much, her sci fi was too hard for my little brain). And both are clearly talented, but neither of them has the self-confidence to see what they have to offer. Until they believe the other person telling them how great they are, which is a huge step for each of them. Sam tells Penny that they suffer from “Imposter Syndrome,” which she googles and reads “Informally used to describe people who are unable to internalize their accomplishments despite external evidence of their competence.”
I think that little sentence pretty much sums up the genre of YA that I prefer.
Amazon gives comparisons to Eleanor and Park, and I can see why. Both tell stories of unlikely friendships between people that don’t quite fit in (or at least, don’t think that they do), that become something more. Both describe terrible home-life situations. And while I consider Eleanor & Park to be the gold standard for YA romance, this book is a worthy successor. In this case, I didn’t even care if Sam and Penny ended up together romantically, as long as their friendship stayed intact. Sometimes I just want to read about people coming together to support each other through the ups and downs of regular life. Mary HK Choi’s next book, Permanent Record, comes out in a few months, and I can’t wait to read it. I loved this book. I loved the pink cover that made me think of fancy pajamas. I loved the back and forth between the narrators. I loved the humor and the sadness. And I loved the real characters inside. Thanks for the tip, Rainbow.