“You’ve Reached Sam” by Dustin Thao (Wednesday Books)
Julie is a senior. She wants to go to Reed College and write for a living. She dreams of leaving her small Washington town of Ellensburg and returning to big city life with her boyfriend, Sam. But Sam is dead, and Julie’s uncertain future is made even more precarious when she discovers a way to talk to him again.
“You’ve Reached Sam” by Dustin Thao follows Julie through her grieving process, with a twist: The two can transcend the boundary between life and death through phone calls. Julie must find a way to remember Sam while facing the reality of losing someone she loves, and picking through the pieces of the crumbled plans and shattered dreams they built together. And it’s heartbreakingly accurate.
“You’ve Reached Sam” is Thao’s debut novel, and it shows in its rawness. Thao seems genuinely unconcerned about careful word choice and crafty poetics, often switching tenses at odd times. Despite this, the story is compelling enough not to dwell on such things.
To the novel’s benefit, the coarse-yet-tender style leans into the narrator as a character choice; Julie aspires to a professional writing career, which explains the occasional writerly diction. At the same time, she is a teenager facing the most substantial struggle of her life. So it’s fitting that many sections are a tangled stream-of-consciousness, while others are quilts of memories beautifully stitched together by movie-esque transitions. Thao avoids the annoying pitfall of resorting to caricatures for his characters. Instead, he writes realistic teenagers who don’t always make the best choices, but have swift growth and maturity.
This young adult novel’s enthralling premise and gorgeous, manga-style cover art promise an emotional ride. Thao does not disappoint. “You’ve Reached Sam” punches directly in the chest during countless moments that hit right on target.