Here we are, almost at the end of 2021. It's been a tough couple of years, for everyone. We've all lost so much.
It is said that the physical act of crying can help the healing process ... which is the main reason why I chose to pick up Dustin Thao's beautiful debut novel You've Reached Sam. I knew full well that I was signing up for a tragic love story, and that's exactly what I got. So now I am here to warn you: This book will absolutely make you cry. Make sure you've got a box of tissues handy, and I mean a full box. But if you are anything like me, you will not regret the time spent with this gorgeous story.
The heartbreak starts in Chapter One: Sam Obayashi is dead, his young life cut short by a tragic automobile accident. His girlfriend — 17-year-old Julie — is having an incredibly hard time coming to terms. Sam was on his way to pick her up that night, so of course she blames herself. As do others. She honestly doesn't know how to function at school or in her life without him. Because she shouldn't have had to.
Julie pushes away beloved friends and family, without ever considering how much they might be going through. She rids herself of everything that reminds her of Sam, including deleting his texts, voicemails, and contact information off her phone. It doesn't take her long to regret that move. Frantically, she dials Sam's number one last time, hoping she remembers it correctly, just to hear his voice on the away message.
Only ... Sam answers.
Yes, Sam is still very much dead, but somehow he is able to communicate with Julie. He can't give her specifics; he knows that their ability to talk like this won't last forever, but he will always pick up when she calls. And this time, he won't leave before they are able to say good-bye.
Dustin Thao presents Sam and Julie's tale in an enchanting non-chronological collage of cherry blossoms and scenes from their love story: the meet-cute, the first kiss, the awkward moments, the misunderstandings, the promises made and left unfulfilled. Woven through the dreams and memories is Julie's painful life as the sun continues to rise and set and graduation approaches. She knows that eventually she has to find her way without Sam, but she just can't bring herself to say the words that will sever the link between them.
Unlike the grief we've all been experiencing, Julie's grief — or her understanding of it, anyway — is resolved by the end of the book. I recognized this kindness as the small blessing it was. Sam and Julie's love story allowed me to have a good, therapeutic cry, as well as the ability to shut the cover and walk away at the end. I would recommend not staying up late to finish, though, as much as you might want to. I wept hardest before falling asleep, and my sinuses were extremely angry with me the next morning.
I will also add that with regard to the experience of grief and the expression of feelings, I can only speak to my experience. Teens who have lost loved ones and who might relate to Julie and Sam on a more personal level would be advised to approach You've Reached Sam with caution.
Much love and many hugs to all of you, always!
Alethea Kontis is a voice actress and award-winning author of over 20 books for children and teens.