'Permanent Record' Review: Mary H.K. Choi Captures Life's Confusing MomentsMary H.K. Choi has a gift for creating characters so complex and real that they jump right off the page — like the eccentrically named Pablo Neruda Rind, aimless hero of her new Permanent Record.
There's occasionally a burst of talk about "new adult" as a channel that could exist between the inland lake of young adult fiction and the wide-open ocean of books written for adults. It could be sexier and edgier than young adult but still about teens or early 20-somethings working out their feelings! It's a topic that comes and goes without gaining much traction.
Meanwhile, Mary H.K. Choi is quietly defining new-adult literature with her modern explorations of how relationships help young people figure out who they really are. Her new book, Permanent Record, is not especially edgy or sexy, but it does feel precisely like that confusing period between high school and adulthood where so many of us flail around, trying to figure out what we actually want from life.
That's exactly the place where we find the eccentrically named Pablo Neruda Rind. After dropping out of New York University, Pablo started working the night shift in a bodega, ran up way too much credit card debt and got really good at shoving his problems out of sight and out of mind. He's stuck in place, immobilized, unable to even get his head around sorting out his future. But then, late one night at the shop, an irrepressible force walks into his life.
Leanna Smart is a superstar. Albums, perfumes and enough Instagram followers to start a small country — Leanna has it all. When she appears in front of Pablo with a stack of snacks and the telltale signs of a rough night, he's infatuated with her before he even realizes she's an international pop icon. They flirt; they eat snacks; they have one of those magical New York moments in time. And once she walks out, Pablo thinks that's it. But then, a few days later, she comes back.
Pablo begins living a strange double life, avoiding his friends, family, job and debt collectors in favor of private flights, fancy hotels and signing a hundred-page nondisclosure agreement. Leanna sweeps him up into her world, and it's a heady feeling. But it's only a matter of time before reality catches up.
Pablo is the kind of charismatic, charming screw-up who's so much fun to hang out with, but the longer you spend with him, the more you find yourself getting frustrated. He's smart, anxious and funny, but the way he slides away from genuine connection and reality in general makes it impossible for him to realize his potential. Choi has a real gift for creating a character so real and complex that she can crack his psyche open like a melon and pick through all the gnarly seeds.
Because Pablo feels so complicated, my favorite parts of the book are his interactions with his (also complicated) family. From his point of view, his Korean single mom is much better at being a doctor than a parent, and his Pakistani father has an engineering degree from Princeton University but seems aimless, content to work small jobs and lead a small life. His little brother is constantly coming up with schemes — at one point, Pablo has to step in to keep him from getting expelled for peddling dildos at school — to get attention from his brother and parents. One of the book's pleasures is that as Pablo becomes more self-aware, he also begins to see his family as people in their own right, with much greater depth than he was able to see before.
It seems inevitable that Permanent Record will be billed as a romance, as the plot hinges on the arrival of Leanna in Pablo's life and their will-they, won't-they love story. But we get only Pablo's perspective, and through his eyes, Leanna is kept at a distance. There are little moments where she feels like a real person and we understand why Pablo is interested, but for the most part, she feels more like a distraction than a character. So much of her is pretense and show that it's hard to know her. This is probably intentional — in fact, it's part of the point. But I had a hard time believing in or investing in a romance that's so one-sided, so ultimately, I don't think I would call Permanent Record a romance.
Above all else, it's about that murky time between high school and everything that comes after, where you're asked to make huge decisions that will affect the rest of your life but you have no idea what you actually want. Permanent Record follows a flawed but lovable character as he learns to accept the mistakes he has made during that time and finds a way to build a future around them.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books andQuill & Quire.