You’ve Reached My Review of ‘You’ve Reached Sam’ by Dustin Thao

Julie Clarke is in her final year of school and has her future sorted. Move out of Ellensburg, move in with her boyfriend Sam Obayashi, attend her dream college Reed, write while he plays guitar, and spend a summer in Japan. Then Sam dies. Julie skips the funeral and struggles to work out how to pick up the pieces. She’s ready to chuck out all of Sam’s things and pretend he never existed. Then Julie decides to call Sam one last time. And Sam picks up the phone.

You’ve Reached Sam is a 2021 contemporary romance by Dustin Thao. I was lured by this novel because, despite almost never reading contemporary romances, it sounded very similar to a short story that haunted me as a kid—Shake by Paul Jennings. Who knew a short story collection I got in a cake mix would have such an effect? I’m glad I read You’ve Reached Sam—it’s not a genre I would typically read, but sometimes it’s nice to branch out of our comfort zone.

I listened to You’ve Reached Sam as an audiobook; I think that made all the difference in my enjoying this read. Soneela Nankani’s breathless narration of Julie’s tragedy is probably what kept me listening to this longer than if I’d been reading the physical copy. Another reason: You’ve Reached Sam is a tragic, depressing story. I couldn’t listen to Thao’s book quickly, because I honestly found myself in a down state after immersing myself in a few chapters. I did read it within the couple weeks Borrowbox allowed me, mainly because this is a popular read and there was a lengthy wait-list, but also I did mention I had to read it only a chapter or two at a time because this book really is designed to be a tearjerker?

I think the fact it was marketed and written to be as “sad” as possible made me purposely want to read this more critically. Julie is grief-stricken, doesn’t behave how a grieving person is meant to behave, and responds in ways that are particularly damaging to herself and others. In the process of her grief, she forgets about the existence of others to whom Sam and Julie were also important in their lives: Sam’s cousin Mika, his brother and parents, his best friend Oliver, Sam’s former friend group, and the group of exchange students who’d also befriended the duo. For the majority of the book, Julie is wrapped up in her feelings and how Sam’s death effects her, forgetting about all the other people in Sam’s life as well as her own, and this makes her unlikeable for most of the novel. Julie is struggling to let go of Sam, and her behaviour not only harms her future—her plans, like the one to get into Reed College—but also her relationship with her mother and Mika. By the end of the novel, Julie discovers she isn’t the only one who is stuck in the past and reluctant to move onto the future. She lives her life—and therefore the novel is stretched out longer than it needs to be—through flashbacks of Julie and Sam. There are a lot of flashbacks, but this adds to the imagery and the realness of Julie and Sam, and to a lesser extent, those around the couple. It is also through these flashbacks, alongside her communication with Sam, that Julie has to come to terms with her present and her inability to control the future.

I grew to enjoy most of the characters in this novel: Oliver extricating himself from Taylor and the former friend group to gain the confidence to befriend both Julie—whom he was jealous for stealing Sam from him—and a potential new love interest that makes the pain of Sam’s death more tolerable. Julie overcoming her desire to keep Sam for himself because she doesn’t want to lose Mika, and later, she doesn’t want Sam’s little brother to hate her and hate himself for what happened between him and Sam in their last conversation. Mr Lee and his bookshop and her support for bookshop co-worker Tristan and his experimental filmmaking career. I wasn’t particularly a fan of Julie’s mother—Nankani makes her sound like Helen Morgendorffer but even with that going for her it didn’t make me enjoy this character much. I suppose her mother exists to show why Julie reacts the way she does to things, and it all has a purpose. Everything is thematic, and everything has a purpose. This is a novel about characters, and about exploration of grief, and I loved it for that. More and more into this reading journey, I’ve discovered I’m a huge fan of character-based stories over plot-based ones, and You’ve Reached Sam definitely succeeds in that regard.

You’ve Reached Sam by Dustin Thao is a contemporary romance that I don’t think I would’ve read in most circumstances, but thanks to Soneela Nankani’s narration and the eerie, fascinating premise, I am glad I did read it. It’s a story about characters, about grief, an ode to moving on while still remembering those who have passed, and a magical realism tale that really tugs at your heartstrings. While most of it was sad for sad’s sake, the ending was wonderfully written, and I must admit there were perhaps some tears vaguely forming at the edges of my eyelids. I enjoyed the complexity of the characters, and the depth of Julie and Sam’s relationship, where they felt like real teenagers and not some Netflix teen drama caricature. I loved most of the exchange students, I loved all the scenes in Mr Lee’s bookshop and the relationship between Julie and her co-workers. Will I stick to reading more contemporary romance? Likely not, but after my struggle reading and not finishing An Abundance of Katherines by John Green earlier this year, this was a nice surprise, and if you give me a traumatising magical realism twist in your contemporary romance, I’ll be lured in like a reader at a whimsical small-town bookstore.

Overall: 3/5


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