When Rainbow Rowell says a book is her favorite of the year, I am going to add it to my to-read list and am likely to track it down relatively quickly. In the case of Mary H.K. Choi’s Emergency Contact it fitting into a Bingo Square category (Youths!) made it all the better.
Let’s get the big verdict out of the way early: this debut is very good and Choi does the thing that I like best about Rowell’s work, she builds imperfect and entirely understandable and relatable characters who feel real and whose world feels lived in. If Rowell is your jam, or you are in the mood for a college age YA (several of our main characters are 18, one is 21) then this one should be on your list.
Now to the less fun portion of the review. It would be poor form on my part to ignore the rabble being roused on the internet (and specifically on Goodreads) about this book. There is a debate about between flawed and unlikeable characters, as well as the notion that a book whose main characters have problematic characteristics is, in and of itself, problematic. To the first, I believe that’s a matter of taste – whether a character is too “unlikeable” for you to read the book is something only you will know for yourself, but I find it to be a method of judgement that I have simply moved passed. Penny as a character is judgmental and a tough cookie, someone difficult to get to know. She is also at times quite immature and has internalized some trauma – in other words she is 18.
As to the problem of problematic contents… a lot of the criticism I’ve seen elsewhere is leaving out authorial intent. Or, if they are discussing it, they are undervaluing the craft. Choi’s book contains shaming, assumptions, stereotyping, sexism, and racist comments because the realistic characters she is writing exist in a world that also has these things. This is YA, not a morality tale.
Is it perfect? No, of course not. Choi doesn’t nail the vernacular of young adults today, instead her characters sound more like the young adults we were (Choi and I are of a similar age). Choi’s next book Permanent Record will be released September 3rd, 2019.
Bingo Square: Youths!