Permanent Record Review

Permanent Record uses the success of Mary H. K. Choi’s bestselling debut as a springboard to reach an even more ambitious story, this time about self-ownership, direction, and love in the time of social media.

Emergency Contact
Mary H. K. Choi
Upper YA Contemporary

On paper, college dropout Pablo Rind doesn’t have a whole lot going for him. His graveyard shift at a twenty-four-hour deli in Brooklyn is a struggle. Plus, he’s up to his eyeballs in credit card debt. Never mind the state of his student loans.

Pop juggernaut Leanna Smart has enough social media followers to populate whole continents. The brand is unstoppable. She graduated from child stardom to become an international icon and her adult life is a queasy blur of private planes, step-and-repeats, aspirational hotel rooms, and strangers screaming for her just to notice them.

When Leanna and Pablo meet at 5:00 a.m. at the bodega in the dead of winter it’s absurd to think they’d be A Thing. But as they discover who they are, who they want to be, and how to defy the deafening expectations of everyone else, Lee and Pab turn to each other. Which, of course, is when things get properly complicated.

It is honestly so terrifying–so intolerably humiliating–to want anything and to declare it.”

First off, props to the team behind Mary H. K. Choi’s marketing and design.

This is some of the best work I’ve ever seen making a sophomore novel visually compatible with the debut but still distinct enough to make sure it doesn’t look like a sequel. Choi is on her way to a gorgeous, recognizable brand.

Swoon. They’re both beautiful and both perfect for the story inside. They’ll look lovely on a shelf together, but nobody would mistake them for a series.

That design cues me as a reader that I’m in for a book with a similar feel. This was great news for me. I loved Emergency Contact, so seeing another contemporary (hyper-contemporary, I’d say) YA/NA romance coming down the pipeline sounded great to me. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who went into Permanent Record with Penny and Sam in the back of my mind. Perhaps unfairly, this book is going to be directly compared with its predecessor.

With that in mind, how does Permanent Record stack up as a follow-up to Choi’s bestselling debut?

At first, Permanent Record delivered faithfully on the EC formula. The very different paths of two lovable but objectively horrible young adults cross one fateful day, leading to emotional intimacy nurtured by their cell phones but complicated by their outside lives.

For the first third of the book, I got what I was expecting. The banter was cute, the kisses were sweet, and the sexytimes were firmly fade-to-black. Choi uses the romance to explore tightly contemporary facts of life in the digital world. Where Emergency Contact was about emotional intimacy in relationships that can be conducted entirely by text,Permanent Record is about identity and relationships in a time when your actions and experiences leave behind an indelible trail–on social media and in others’ perceptions.

But as the book wades into the second act of the story, something shifts.

It’s so gradual and organic that I couldn’t pinpoint to you exactly when it starts–maybe it was there from the beginning–but somewhere along the line, Permanent Record lets go of the constraints of EC‘s romance structure.

Unlike EC, Permanent Record is told in a single first-person POV. This allows Choi to turn up the intensity on the “affection porn” of the early chapters as the relationship blossoms, but it also lets her dig much deeper into the interiority of Pablo.

I’ve had an unlucky recent string of YA reads that feature characters I struggled to understand. Permanent Record reminded me that, in the right writer’s hands, a character I can’t personally relate to can still be deeply understandable to me. Pablo walks a different world than I do, wants different things, and makes a lot of choices I don’t think I ever would. Through it all, though, I felt I was able to understand his perspective deeply. I could join him on his journey, feeling his pain even when he brought it on himself. By the end, Pablo was able to put words to feelings I recognize intimately.

Reading Permanent Record, I kept coming back to that old writing advice about the universal only coming through the specific. By staying laser-focused on Pablo–not his romance, but his inner life–Choi is able to hit the bullseye on some pretty wide-ranging themes. By then end, Permanent Record has become a thoughtful examination of what it means to have ownership of your life and an inspiring love letter to the hustle.

A final note: Permanent Record and Emergency Contact have something else in common: I’m not sure either are properly YA. In a publishing world with a thriving New Adult label, I think both titles would be shelved as NA. But alas, earwax.

The publisher provided me with a review ebook at no charge in expectation of an honest review. No money changed hands for this review and all opinions are my own.

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