Permanent Record is the first book by Mary H. K. Choi that I’ve ever read – but it definitely won’t be the last!
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.
When Leanna and Pab randomly meet at 4:00 a.m. in the middle of a snowstorm in Brooklyn, they both know they can’t be together forever. So, they keep things on the down-low and off Instagram for as long as they can. But it takes about three seconds before the world finds out…
Trigger Warnings: anxiety, debt, talk of cancer, minor scene involving childhood cancer and the Make A Wish foundation, depression, codependency, and talk of assault (unwanted touching).
Let’s start with the characters. Pablo is a biracial (Korean and Pakistani) 20 year-old who has dropped out of NYU and now works the graveyard shift at a bodega. Leanna is a 22 year-old biracial (Mexican and white) pop star who isn’t very happy with the content that she is producing. (As a side note, I’d be interested to know which celebrity Leanna was based on. I got real Ariana Grande vibes for some reason.) Unexpectedly, this novel was solely from Pablo’s POV – from the blurb I expected it to be from both character’s POVs. I can definitely see why this might therefore be a bit of a polarising book, as Pablo can get a little difficult to read due to his unwillingness to ask for help with his increasing depression and financial troubles.
Speaking of which, this is the first book that I’ve ever read that really goes into the topic of student debt. It talks about the dangers of allowing 18 year-old kids to get credit cards and loans, which are never properly explained to them. And while I spent most of the novel screaming at Pablo to try and get some help with his finances, I thought that this aspect was incredibly well done. I have also been guilty of not looking at my bank balance, because I didn’t want to think about how much, or how little, was actually in there. The novel also takes this opportunity to talk about how predatory capitalism and the higher education system can be.
I do think that the blurb of this book is pretty misleading – not only did I think that Leanna was going to have a POV, but it suggests that the romance was going to be the main point of the novel. But I don’t think that’s the case at all! This book does have a romance, but it’s not the central topic, in my opinion. It’s about families, and mental health, and feeling lost in an increasingly unfriendly world. It’s essentially about the ways that capitalist systems take advantage of young adults by trapping them into situations that they can’t know anything about. In Pablo’s case, that’s his student debt, and with Leanna, it’s her contract with her manager/studio. To me, that was the real heart of the novel.
There was only one thing about this novel that rubbed me the wrong way: at one point, Leanna is talking about working with Make A Wish, and she describes the child she’s chatting to as ‘wheelchair-bound’. While I do not use a wheelchair myself, I have read people’s opinions about how this isn’t a good descriptor. This is because wheelchairs enable people to get around – quite the opposite of ‘binding’. I hope this can be changed in future editions of the book.
Other than that one scene, however, I thought that Permanent Record was an incredible novel. The characters, while they were frustrating at times, were incredibly well-rounded, and the topics that the author raises were ones that are rarely discussed.