Emergency Contact (Choi)

Emergency Contact 
Mary H.K. Choi, 2018
Simon & Schuster
400 pp.

From debut author Mary H.K. Choi comes a compulsively readable novel that shows young love in all its awkward glory—perfect for fans of Eleanor & Park and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.

For Penny Lee high school was a total nonevent. Her friends were okay, her grades were fine, and while she somehow managed to land a boyfriend, he doesn’t actually know anything about her.

When Penny heads to college in Austin, Texas, to learn how to become a writer, it’s seventy-nine miles and a zillion light years away from everything she can’t wait to leave behind.

Sam’s stuck. Literally, figuratively, emotionally, financially. He works at a cafe and sleeps there too, on a mattress on the floor of an empty storage room upstairs. He knows that this is the god-awful chapter of his life that will serve as inspiration for when he’s a famous movie director but right this second the seventeen bucks in his checking account and his dying laptop are really testing him.

When Sam and Penny cross paths it’s less meet-cute and more a collision of unbearable awkwardness.

Still, they swap numbers and stay in touch—via text—and soon become digitally inseparable, sharing their deepest anxieties and secret dreams without the humiliating weirdness of having to see each other. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—ca. 1978-79
Where—Seoul, South Korea
Raised—Hong Kong; San Antonio, Texas, USA
Education—B.A., University of Texas, Austin
Currently—lives in Brooklyn, New York City, New York

Mary H.K. Choi is a writer for the New York Times, GQ, Wired, and the Atlantic. She has written comics for Marvel and DC, as well as a collection of essays called Oh, Never Mind.

She is the host of Hey, Cool Job!, a podcast about jobs, and is a culture correspondent for VICE News Tonight on HBO. Emergency Contact is her first novel. Mary grew up in Hong Kong and Texas and now lives in New York. (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews
[A] blushingly tender and piquant debut novel.… [Choi] inserts timely issues like sexual assault, cultural appropriation and even DACA into her characters' intimate conversations, but it is her examination of digital vs. F2F communication that feels the most immediate.
New York Times Book Review

Penny somehow broke down all my walls. Her tech became incidental and her voice endearing, and just like that, I was hooked. Even the texts feel very natural and elegantly woven into the narration.There is much more to both Sam and Penny than quirky character traits and witty repartee.… While the story does traffic in the heart flutter of romance that is tantalizingly out of reach, its emotional core goes deep.

(Starred review) Choi sensitively shows the evolution of two lonely, complicated people…. Her sharp wit and skillful character development…ensure that readers will feel that they know Penny and Sam inside and out before the gratifying conclusion (Ages 14–up).
Publishers Weekly

Choi creates an up-to-date and realistic contemporary romance by upending the love story trope. Miscues and miscommunications, which often propel romantic plots forward, are replaced by open and constant screen-to-screen communication (Gr 9-up). —Eva Thaler-Sroussi, Needham Free Public Library, MA
School Library Journal

Readers will swoon…. Choi has a knack for creating relatable characters, and this quirky, socially awkward love story will keep your cheeks rosy with every page.… [T]he perfect book for those who root for the underdog and believe broken people can heal together.
Romance Times

It is sadly ironic that the [negative] feedback from Penny's creative writing professor …applies equally to this novel. Witty asides and up-to-the-minute slang cannot compensate for an absence of emotional depth or well-crafted prose (Ages 14-18).
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, use our LitLovers talking points to help start a discussion for EMERGENCY CONTACT … then take off on your own:

1. Describe Penny and Sam. What do we come to learn about them through their texts? What character traits lay beneath their witty repartee? Some readers have found Penny overly judgmental to the point of unpleasantness, preferring Sam's character over hers. What's your opinion?

2. In what way is the texting between Penny and Sam confessional? How does the couple's texting evolve over time? Importantly, how do Penny and Sam themselves evolve over the course of the novel—or do they?

3. Consider Penny's mother, Celeste, who "resembled an incoming freshman as much as Penny did." What do you think of her? What about the other characters—Jude, Mallory, Lorraine, and Andy?

4. How is texting easier or safer than personal contact—in which two people have to look each other in the eye? Consider, for instance, Sam's worries about the way Penny might judge his impoverished background.

5. Is a virtual relationship as real or legitimate as an "in-person" relationship? Is it possible to "know" someone through texting? Is texting any different than being pen pals through the written and mailed letters of a previous generation? If either your child or a close friend confided in you about a new romance via texting, how would you respond?

6. Consider the nature of the couple's texting, its intimate revelatory nature. Then consider the book's title. Why might that title be seen as ironic, or at least engendering a different take on the word "emergency"? And yet in other ways, "emergency" is an absolutely appropriate word for the relationship between Sam and Penny. How so?

7. Author Mary H.K. Choi has said of her novel, "high-key nothing happens." Does nothing happen in this book? What do you think?

8. Penny gets some of the novel's best lines. What are some of your favorites? What do you make, for instance, of the multiple choice list she creates for responding to personal slights?

9. Penny describes her relationship with Sam: "It wasn't a romance; it was too perfect for that. Care to comment—what does it mean when a relationship is too perfect for a romance?

10. If you're over 30, is the teenage text lingo difficult to grasp? Does the overall language make the novel work for you? Or do you find it off putting?

11. By the novel's end, what are your hopes/expectations for Penny and Sam?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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