Permanent Record by Mary H.K. Choi

Review by Jieun Lee

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2019

421 pages, hard cover, $24.99 CAD, ISBN 978-1-53444-597-0

Ages 14-17, Grades 9-12

Young Adult/New Adult, Contemporary Realism, Romance 

Because here’s how I’m sick (everyone’s sick in their own special way; the variety of the flavors of crazy is pretty endless, but me?): I’m convinced that the next video in the autoplay is the answer. That it’ll be the antidote to my entire life. I believe (but would never admit) that watching the impossibly attractive, gap-toothed Black British chick reveal how she Instagram modeled her way into Columbia with a full scholarship will make that shit happen to me. As if reality is a Japanese horror movie where you watch the crackly footage to become the next chosen one. That is, as soon as this thirteen-minute portal to a better me would hurry up and buffer in this tundra.

Nineteen-year-old Pablo Neruda Rind’s life is a complete and utter mess. He’s up over his eyebrows in student debt from a college degree he didn’t finish, and he’s stuck working a graveyard shift at a bodega—err, health food store—while his friends are all getting their lives together and starting real jobs. Meanwhile, all Pablo wants to do is watch YouTube videos and think of ways to make new Hot Snack (™) combinations to post on his snack and sneaker Instagram account. But when teen mega-celebrity Leanna “Lee” Smart walks into the bodega at five in the morning, he just knows his life is finally going to start.

Despite a very intimate cover, Mary H.K. Choi’s new novel Permanent Record isn’t really about romance. Instead, the novel exemplifies all the things that happen in the background during a romance that seems doomed to fail. The novel is set in first-person from Pablo’s perspective, providing the reader with unfiltered access to his thoughts, which fluctuate from anxiety about his future to utter denial about his increasing debt. Like in Choi’s debut novel, Emergency Contact, her follow-up effectively utilizes fast dialogue and text messages to build characterization and tension. The escalation of texts between Pablo and Lee are paralleled by decreasing interactions with his friends and family. Pablo’s narrative voice is self-aware enough to forgive his many instances of self-entitlement and jealousy, even if his obsession with instant gratification can be frustrating. His voice also effectively demonstrates the frustration of seeing the lives of his family and friends moving forward despite his own unwillingness to do so. 

Pablo’s separated family dynamic also provides commentary on the tensions and difficulties between immigrant parents and their American-born children. Pablo and his brother, Rain, struggle to live up to their immensely determined first-generation Korean mother, but relate more to their father, who was born and raised on the East Coast but whose heritage is Pakistani. Neither parent is reduced to a stereotype of the overbearing, demanding Asian parental figure. They are concerned parents who want the best for their somewhat clueless sons. Pablo’s struggles with his heritage also illustrate the difficulties in finding community as a multiracial teen: “I can’t help but wonder how much my people are mine. If they’d claim me in the same way I want to claim them.”

Permanent Record is an older coming-of-age novel that explores intimacy and celebrity in the social media age and the confusing realities of becoming an adult. Pablo’s eventual realization that moving out of his mom’s house doesn’t mean that he is any closer to figuring out what to do with his life hits home for a lot of us who can relate to the messy, exhilarating and harsh realities of being in your early twenties. Readers who enjoyed Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl and Choi’s first novel, Emergency Contact, will definitely like this. 

Jieun Lee is a graduate student in UBC’s MA in Children’s Literature. She doodles and scribbles as much as she can and aims to tell stories of children’s experiences in immigrant families and the magical effects of food. 

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