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Review | Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. Choi

This cover seduced me from the moment I clapped eyes on it. It is so perfect that when I saw it in person I had to actually take a moment before I could touch it. With the gold foil? And that precise shade of blush? I mean, I mounted a token resistance. But nobody was fooled. And then yesterday it was so beautiful out, right? It was sunshine and blossoms on trees and my feet told me they were just going to take me for a short walk around the city center, when what they actually did was march me right down to the nearest bookstore and over to the C section of the stacks. I didn't stand a chance at that point. We were going home together, and neither of us had any questions on that score.

Penny Lee can see the end in sight. She has her acceptance letter to UT Austin in hand, and if she can just withstand her clingy mother and her well-meaning but doltish boyfriend a couple more days, she'll be free. And so it is with equal amounts relief and trepidation that she moves into her new dorm with her alarmingly gregarious roommate Jude. Jude comes along with an even more alarmingly vapid best friend Mallory and one 21-year-old ex-uncle by the name of Sam. Sam seems to primarily consist of caffeine and insomnia. He's a surprisingly good chef at a local coffee house. And he is nursing one hell of a broken heart. Penny has no business being captivated by Sam. But then one night she encounters him having a full-blown panic attack in public, and she steps outside her own rigid personal boundaries to try to help. Which is how she ends up listed in his phone under "Emergency Penny." And thus begins a difficult to define, but utterly heart racing relationship made up of texts and longing. But, of course, Sam was having a panic attack for a reason. And Penny has none of the tools she believes she needs to engage in an IRL relationship. And before long, everything looks to come crashing down. As if they weren't balanced precariously enough when they met.

I really had no idea going in what this book would be like. The Rainbow Rowell blurb obviously brought Eleanor and Park (and Fangirl, too) to mind, but I was understandably wary of allowing those comparisons too much room in my head. I resolved to just allow it to surround me and see who we both were together and how we got on.
Penny was looking at her phone when the screen lit up in her hand.

It was a call.

From Sam.

Whoa.

Penny glanced at a still-sleeping Jude, quietly got out of bed, and went into the bathroom.

"Hi."

His voice was deep, as if he'd just woken up.

"Hi?"

Penny cleared her throat. "You called me."

She heard him laugh.

Penny ran the shower, as if the room were bugged.

"I'm aware of that."

"Why the escalation?" she asked him.

He laughed again. Penny had no idea why she worded it like that.

"I mean, why'd you call?"

"You didn't answer me."

"What?"

Penny's heart was hammering. She sat on the floor.

"I asked if you were okay. You didn't respond. I became momentarily worried."

"Oh, sorry. Yeah, I'm fine. I was thinking about momstuff."

"Well, it's the responsibility of the emergency contact to inquire."

"I'm going to be honest with you: The rules of emergency contacts continue to evade me."

He laughed again. Penny smiled so hard it broke her face.
I was smiling and disarmed within a handful of words. Emergency Contact is relentlessly its own thing. It has a distinct groove and offbeat rhythm that I found incredibly appealing, even as it dug its way under my skin. Penny and Sam are both already wrecked and waving in the wind when the story opens. There was no way it was going to be a comfortable ride. And it really isn't. It is not a comfortable tale in any way. But you can't get it out of your head. And the truth is I never even wanted to. It's messy and a bit grimy, coltish and self-conscious at every turn. I loved it. And those texts. Those blunt and awkward and endlessly charming texts. Once they really get going, it's impossible to resist crushing quantities of hope. That they will meet, for once, with everything laid out on the table. That real life interaction will be a distant possibility and that it won't simultaneously ruin the delicate ecosystem that is their virtual relationship. That the heaviness of their pasts won't overshadow the truth of where and who they are now. The presence of Jude and Mallory, Sam's . . . Lorraine, along with Penny's mother and the specter of Sam's take up just the right amount of space in the story. Everyone is flawed and possible, and the whole thing is just so real I could feel every one of Penny's unwelcome blushes and the ragged edge of Sam's defeated mattress on the floor. I held my breath. In the end, I suppose that's the best way to characterize my enjoyment of this debut novel. I held my breath.

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