Powerful Pages: ‘You’ve Reached Sam’ is a melancholy tale of first love and loss
Dustin Thao’s debut novel discusses the five stages of grief in a literary sense
What would you do if you had a second chance at goodbye? Dustin Thao’s debut novel “You’ve Reached Sam” presents this hypothetical scenario in such a way that emphasizes the importance of the grieving process. He normalizes the different ways humans do so while portraying the five stages of grief in a way that feels natural and effortless.
The novel begins with protagonist Julie Clarke, who struggles to acknowledge that her boyfriend, Samuel Obayashi, is dead. In the first few chapters, readers can see that Julie wants to distance herself from anything that relates to Sam in an effort to move on with her life. However, events throughout the novel make readers question whether she truly is done grieving or not. Despite his passing, Julie discovers that she and Sam can still communicate via phone call — at least until she can finally say goodbye.
What makes this novel especially touching is the realism regarding grief. Thao has the ability to write multiple perspectives on grief flawlessly, showing a range of coping mechanisms and recovery processes. His characters truly encapsulate how everybody grieves differently. Readers are able to see such in themselves just as much as in the characters. While Julie’s first instinct is to rush the process and act as though nothing is wrong, her peers allow themselves to freely feel their emotions. Using powerful, emotionally charged language, Thao makes “You’ve Reached Sam” both a heart-wrenching tale and a relatable masterpiece.
Moreover, Thao’s way of incorporating the second chance aspect reflects the hardships that come with the grieving process. The phone calls can be seen as a metaphor for Julie’s inability to address the fact that her love is no longer alive. Wrapped up in wishful thinking that their phone calls can substitute for his presence, Julie fails to acknowledge that her relationships with those around her are suffering. When grieving, it’s easy to isolate oneself. An outside perspective on the aftermath of death is sometimes close minded, so Thao’s skillfulness makes way for readers to truly empathize with the characters as though they themselves are experiencing loss.
Thao is a Vietnamese-American writer who makes sure that representation is evident in his novel, from main characters Sam and Mika Obayashi, who are Japanese-American, to Julie’s friend group at school that is made up of Asian exchange students hailing from Thailand, Japan and Vietnam. Additionally, Thao features an LGBTQ+ relationship within the novel behind the scenes: it’s an example that all young adult authors should follow.
He also brings to light hardships of the Asian community in the United States. Sam’s family is unable to find a temple. The Asian Student Club at school is ridiculed by white students who claim their mockery is just playful joking around. This microaggression belittles the experiences and cultural ties of the exchange students.
The best part of “You’ve Reached Sam” is that the point of the story is not to decipher whether or not Julie can really communicate with Sam through her phone. Thao leaves the logistics of this vague for that reason. Sam’s phone calls are a clever element meant to motivate Julie through the five stages of grief. It’s a story about accepting events as they come and letting first love go, no matter how hard that may be.