[Book Review] Permanent Record // Mary H.K. Choi

After a year of college, Pablo is working at his local twenty-four-hour deli, selling overpriced snacks to brownstone yuppies. He’s dodging calls from the student loan office and he has no idea what his next move is.

Leanna Smart’s life so far has been nothing but success. Age eight: Disney Mouseketeer; Age fifteen: first #1 single on the US pop chart; Age seventeen, *tenth* #1 single; and now, at Age nineteen . . . life is a queasy blur of private planes, weird hotel rooms, and strangers asking for selfies on the street.

Lil Bean asleep next to a copy of Permanent Record by Mary H.K. Choi

Pablo has been struggling with finances, with finding a passion, with discovering what he wants to devote his life to. At the moment, he’s working the graveyard shift at a 24-hour bodega. He’s avoiding telling his parents how over his head he is from student loans and the credit card he opened when he first started college. Basically, his life is a mess. Then one night, famous pop star Leanna Smart wanders into the bodega and everything changes. There’s an instant connection, but Leanna is crazy busy all the time, zipping from one continent to another making albums and movies and business deals while Pablo spends his time working and avoiding taking responsibility for all his problems. Is there any way they can make their relationship work, or were they doomed from the start?

I’ve never read a book about encountering a celebrity. I’m sure there are plenty of books of that nature out there, but Mary H. K. Choi’s novel is the first encounter I have had with a narrative that revolves around a celebrity and a civilian dating. Because of this, I was really interested in the logistics of how jarring it is to have someone sweep into your life with a whirlwind entourage including a manager, body guards, publicist, and whoever else trailing paparazzi. And then having to treat all that as if it’s normal and seem unfazed by the complete disruption caused by just being around this person.

Pablo is a likeable guy, and I truly enjoyed this novel, but I never felt emotionally connected to Pablo or Leanna. If anything, I felt more for Pablo’s family and the married couple who run the bodega Pablo works at. Some of Pablo’s roommates even seemed more interesting. Essentially, all the secondary characters had more life and vibrancy to them than the main characters did. What kept me reading this novel was my curiosity as to whether Pablo and Leanna actually work things out.

The writing is good, but Choi fills the book with a lot of contemporary lingo that I found a bit off-putting. I’m in my mid-twenties, and reading this book showed me how much I dislike newer phrases that younger adults use these days, such as “bet” or saying that something cool “slaps.” I found the use of them a bit annoying, but not enough so that I wanted to put the book down. It was more of a constant cringe than a complete deal-breaker.

The biggest challenge I had with this book is some of Pablo and Leanna’s actions. Leanna becomes almost a different character later on in the book, and I don’t know if that switch was intentionally, or if it was a plot device to rationalize the ending, but either way it was off-putting. And Pablo’s financial troubles were mildly believable, but I couldn’t help thinking about all of the resources he had at his disposable, and all of the people he could go to for help understanding and managing his situation. I understand that his shame and anxiety played a big part in his unwillingness to talk to anyone about his situation, but I imagine that even a stubborn man can only last so long before the stress causes him to crack and seek help despite the shame.

Overall, this book was interesting and insightful, and Pablo’s family gets plenty of heartwarming and humorous scenes. Pablo’s father makes this book a win in itself. I would highly recommend this book if you don’t mind problematic or unlikable characters, but if you’re looking for a cozy, comfort romance read, I would pass this one up for something more, well, comforting. I will also say, too, that I loved the diversity of the characters in this book. It didn’t feel forced, like how some novels have that stock Black character for the sake of diversity. Many of Choi’s characters are mixed race and ethnicity, and I learned a lot just from that aspect of the book, which is no small win.

I recently started another of Choi’s novels, Emergency Contact, and I’ll let you know if I prefer that book to this one. I think the romance is supposed to be better, but I’m already noticing a lot of the same cringe-inducing, young-teen-angst lingo that grated on my empathy nerves in this book, so we’ll see.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

PUBLICATION DEETS: Simon & Shuster, September 3, 2019, 417 pages


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