On paper, college dropout Pablo Rind doesn’t have a whole lot going for him. His graveyard shift at a twenty-four-hour deli in Brooklyn is a struggle. Plus, he’s up to his eyeballs in credit card debt. Never mind the state of his student loans.
Pop juggernaut Leanna Smart has enough social media followers to populate whole continents. The brand is unstoppable. She graduated from child stardom to become an international icon and her adult life is a queasy blur of private planes, step-and-repeats, aspirational hotel rooms, and strangers screaming for her just to notice them.
When Leanna and Pablo meet at 5:00 a.m. at the bodega in the dead of winter it’s absurd to think they’d be A Thing. But as they discover who they are, who they want to be, and how to defy the deafening expectations of everyone else, Lee and Pab turn to each other. Which, of course, is when things get properly complicated.
Permanent Record is a novel that takes its time. It acknowledges the reverberation of unresolved parental marital issues that trickles down into parenting styles, in minute and nuanced ways. It’s not a book that spelled everything out for me, but that’s the way I like things: kind of like a slice of life manga or anime. It’s a snippet into these people’s lives as opposed to A Story with exact plot points where you can see the outline, and the perfect novel for a hazy rainy day.
We follow the life of our protagonist, half Korean half Pakistani, Pablo Neruda Rind. He has just dropped out of NYU and is accumulating debt quickly while working at a Korean-owned bodega in New York City. He meets a huge celebrity teen pop star by chance one night, pseudonym Leanna Smart, real name Carolina Suarez, one fateful night when she walks into the bodega seeking ice cream, and they end up beginning a whirlwind relationship that has Pablo traveling all over the globe with her while dealing with issues at home.
As we see their relationship unfold, it becomes clear that their difference in socioeconomic status and wealth puts a strain on their relationship. Pablo is in debt, behind on bills and being sent to the collections agency, in stark contrast to Lee who is one of the most well known pop stars, flies on private jets, emancipated from her parents at a young age and has managed most of her money herself with the help of a manager. Over the course of the book you see Lee’s financial privilege because being wealthy she doesn’t have to blink before handing over her credit card for a meal or other basic needs whereas a lot of Pablo’s decisions revolve around money, and the weight of his debt and guilt crush him. I appreciated a couple of moments where she recognizes her privilege in this area of her life.
Pablo is independent in another way in that he has had to deal with the effects of the dynamics of his parents’ marriage. His mom is Korean and his dad is Pakistani and from Jersey, and they are separated. His mom is a doctor and wealthier and has traditional Korean values including high academic expectations, whereas his dad has been absent. His dad was never really there for him and has never held a consistent job despite his pride having graduated from Princeton, and so Pablo has anger and resentment built up towards him. Over the course of the story, his dad is working on a film which is a new endeavor for him. His parents are separated and you feel the emotional separation as well, and therefore Pablo has developed his own ways to cope with things, which is an after effect of their marriage dynamics.
Pablo’s resentment is not only directed at his parents but also somewhat at Lee because she is able to make all her decisions for herself, seemingly without the weight of her family’s generational issues behind her, but we see later on that that is only the case on the surface. Meanwhile, Lee is somewhat envious that Pablo at least has his parents in his life in some capacity, even though their relationship is not perfect. She is close with her grandmother who is a Latinx woman (Lee is biracial – half Mexican and half White). To me, this is so reflective of real-life relationships in an organic and sobering manner. Family of origin, whether supportive, completely absent, or somewhere in between, has a lasting effect on anyone’s life.
Readers can see the role of shame and guilt in the choices that everyone involved makes. For example, on trips when Leanna wants to spend money on something and Pablo really can’t, you can see him sweating trying to think of either a) an excuse, or b) a way to come up with the money and this causes so much stress for him. We also see stress in his decision making regarding college, affording it and reaching deadlines, grades, and dealing with his mother’s expectations. Both his parents carry shame around how they handled the separation and their parenting- which is a real thing, trying to balance an adult relationship with parenting, and they both feel they haven’t done a great job at it.
When Pablo and Lee traverse their relationship, they go to far off places and travel the globe together. Pablo, in a way, is looking for an escape from his life where he carries his shame around, and he follows Lee willingly. He soon learns that the more he tries to run from his issues, the quicker they will catch up to him.
All of these topics – finance, race, job security, parenting styles – these are all things that play such a huge role in relationship dynamics and this is where these kind of slice of life books excel, is taking all of those things into account with one screenshot in a small moment in time in someone’s life.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a YA contemporary book without friend dynamics, and there is no shortage of those in Permanent Record. Pablo lives with roommates and they are as bro-ey as they can get, in a supportive and jovial manner. I also appreciated that there were some scenes with roommate conflict and dynamic, which is rare but so real.
MY CONCLUSION: RECOMMENDED
Permanent Record may seem like a jet-setting, lavish adventure in some regards. However, it’s more like I was dropped into Pablo’s life and I was a fly on the wall observing and spectating. This allowed me to really see how much of an actualized and well thought out character he is, and appreciate his and Mary H.K. Choi’s voice. It is unlike any other novel I’ve read and I loved it.
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Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: One night, teen pop icon Leanna Smart walks into a Korean-owned bodega in New York City and meets Pablo Neruda Rind who works there, and they begin a budding relationship, and they reconcile with socioeconomic differences and family issues from their pasts.
Perfect for: Readers who enjoy any of the following: YA contemporary, slice of life manga/anime, real life books where you have to suspend your disbelief, and/or books set in New York City
Think twice if: You enjoy loud, fast moving books as versus quiet, introspective books
Genre: YA contemporary
Trigger/content warning: Debt, financial instability
6 thoughts on “Book Review: Permanent Record by Mary H.K. Choi – An Escapist and Resonant “Slice of Life” Story”
Such an in-depth review. After reading Emergency Contact, I’ve been on the lookout for more of Mary H.K. Choi’s books and this one sounds like its right up my alley.
I was on the fence with this book for a while, not sure if it was something I would enjoy or not… but I loved your review! It was very insightful and I see now that it deals with very real and poignant issues like the financial aspect, and the privilege that comes (or doesn’t) along with it and then also the absent parents issue affecting the main character’s upbringing. I think I’ll actually pick up the book now! 😀 Well done!
This definitely sound interesting and I’ve read Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi as well, and I liked that book enough that I’m curious enough about this one to try it out as well!
Oh that’s fantastic, yay I hope you like Permanent Record! I haven’t read Emergency Contact so it’s good to hear that you liked that one to 🙂
… too* haha
I absolutely ADORED this book. I felt like Mary H K Choi captured the feeling of drifting through your twenties so perfectly. And, like you’ve noted, how your parents continue to have an impact on your life even when you’re starting to consider yourself an adult. Pablo’s relationship with his dad in particular hit me where it hurt.
Amazing review ❤