Penny can't wait to go away to college. She is tired of dealing with her mother, who acts more like her best friend than her mom; Penny has always had to be the grown-up for both of them, and she is done. She heads to school in Austin, Texas, feeling awkward and unsociable and hoping to channel her angst into learning to be a writer.
Meanwhile, Sam seems to have stalled out. He has dropped out of college, gotten a job at a coffee shop and started living in the empty storage room upstairs. Once, he wanted to study film — but now it's all he can do to make ends meet, and he can't seem to untangle his feelings for an ex who is no good for him.
When a random encounter throws Penny and Sam together, they're too unrelentingly awkward and stuck in their own heads to become friends in real life. But they do agree to be emergency contacts and exchange phone numbers. One text leads to another, and soon they're using the safety of their phones to share things that they've never even admitted to themselves.
I will admit that I was nervous going into this one. Overuse of modern technology is a pet peeve of mine in contemporary fiction, and reading a book in which the romance takes place largely over text felt like a risk. But I had heard this book compared to Eleanor & Park, and that promise made the risk worthwhile.
Sure enough, the first chapter set me on edge by starting in an Apple store, where Penny is having an awkward time shopping for an iPhone with her mom. This soon leads to a sexting dilemma, and Penny's voice is so quippy-cute that the whole thing felt way more pop than I was prepared to like. Imagine my surprise when, a few chapters in, I stopped caring because 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. Both of them have been deeply damaged by traumatic events, and they both have a lot to overcome if they're ever going to act on their flirtation. While the story does traffic in the heart flutter of romance that is tantalizingly out of reach, its emotional core goes deep. Sam and Penny are both people who are pretty bad at friendship, family — pretty much any kind of relationship that requires the sharing of feelings. They have to learn to be friends before they can be more than that, and the things they learn allow them to deepen their relationships with the other people in their lives as well as with each other.
At the heart of Emergency Contact is the issue of difficult mother-child relationships. Most teens away at college have an obvious emergency contact — their parents. But Sam and Penny have absent fathers and mothers upon whom they cannot rely. They both feel fundamentally unsafe and can only find true comfort in each other once they recognize their mothers as flawed people and deal with their feelings. These are thorny issues to tackle in a young adult novel — issues that many people are only able to take on for themselves once they are well into adulthood. Seeing them addressed here feels like a recognition of the true hardships that must be faced in order to build healthy relationships.
So, is the Eleanor & Park comparison apt? There are certainly some similar themes, especially in terms of troubled families and the challenges they create within a person. But ultimately, this feels like a very different book. Eleanor & Park is about the heady elation of first love and the very adolescent challenge of not being free to express it. In Emergency Contact, we find two people who have all the freedom of adults, if not the emotional maturity, and who have no external impediment to their relationship — all their struggles are internal. Penny and Sam both enter the story with existing and mostly painful baggage around love and sex, so instead of heady elation, their journey feels more like one of slow healing. It's a different, more grown-up kind of romance but is no less heartfelt because of it.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books and Quill & Quire.