Desert Isle Keeper
College is a much better fit than high school for odd, self-contained Penny Lee, getting her away from her bland high school boyfriend and her teenybopper mom. While getting a fresh start at the University of Texas, she meets Sam Becker, who’s living above the coffee shop where he bakes and makes hot drinks. Sam’s ex-girlfriend reports a positive pregnancy test to Sam, triggering a panic attack, from which Penny rescues him and adds her name to his phone as his emergency contact. A text relationship blossoms. But will they be equally compatible in real life? This enjoyable, well-written début is exactly what NA needs right now.
NA has come, at least to me, to be a tone as well as an age bracket, and I was so happy to read an NA that was not dark, tormented, and hypersexual. On paper, Sam looks like a total NA stereotype: dark-haired, tattooed, artistic, broke, from a tragic broken home, with a lousy ex and a drinking problem. But instead of being a clichéd bitter, sarcastic, misanthropic outsider, Sam remains a good guy who really wants a life that includes love and friendship. He’s vulnerable in his craving to love his ex, and his relationship with Penny grows out of the fact that they feel comfortable talking about their feelings together, first via technology and then increasingly intimately. Both Sam and Penny need that bridge. Penny, especially, is awkward in person, and neurotic to a point that seems like it might be an anxiety disorder (her emergency kits are questionably thorough). Her non-sequiturs and trivia are weird in speech but fun text conversation starters.
I liked that Sam’s excessive drinking is treated as a problem, not as a natural phase of being a teenager, and Sam is grappling with it. I wish he didn’t smoke so much, but it fits an addictive-personality character trying to find something other than drinking to do when he’s shaken.
There is more authenticity to the depictions of Sam’s poverty than in many stories that honestly come across a bit like hardship porn – ‘let’s show how awesome my hero is by making him overcome more and more!’ Sam can’t go to the ER because he is uninsured. Some of his tattoos are crappy street jobs done by buddies. He can’t afford the community college class he wants to take on filmmaking. He feels embarrassed about being unable to take his ex-girlfriend out for nice meals. It’s honest.
All that said, I wish this book had undergone one or two more rounds of editing by someone tough but loving with their red pen. There’s too much writing about writing theory – at one point, Penny even picks up her notes and thinks about them so the author can tell us about a Russian theorist. While I like the author’s social values, she needs to blend her political commentary better into her story (a classroom debate on race and authorship feels very targeted at the reader, not the characters, and one sentence implies that mental health crises and homelessness aren’t ‘real’ if they happen to white male citizens). I also wanted someone to catch some loose ends in the plot.
The author can be an absolutely delightful wordsmith. Penny realizes that she “wouldn’t be popular until she was a grown-up, and that was fine because life was a long con.” A musician Penny has only seen on Youtube “resembled the guy in the music videos only with a head so big it would’ve looked at home with smaller heads orbiting it.” DELIGHT. However, that same good editor could have pulled her back from occasional over-writing. In thinking about how good-looking Sam and his ex are, Penny reflects, “If two gazelles gallivanted around the savanna, it was no business of the tree frog. Penny was the tree frog obviously.” 1) Yeah, hon, I got that, and 2) gazelles? Tree frogs? Really?
The author is a journalist, and this is her first foray into fiction. I enjoyed Emergency Contact very much, and I hope her career keeps her in fiction!