Book Review: You’ve Reached Sam by Dustin Thao – An Evocative and Vulnerable Story about Grief, Connection, and Moving On

Blurb:

Seventeen-year-old Julie has her future all planned out—move out of her small town with her boyfriend Sam, attend college in the city, spend a summer in Japan. But then Sam dies. And everything changes.

Heartbroken, Julie skips his funeral, throws out his things, and tries everything to forget him and the tragic way he died. But a message Sam left behind in her yearbook forces back memories. Desperate to hear his voice one more time, Julie calls Sam’s cellphone just to listen to his voicemail.

And Sam picks up the phone.

In a miraculous turn of events, Julie’s been given a second chance at goodbye. The connection is temporary. But hearing Sam’s voice makes her fall for him all over again, and with each call it becomes harder to let him go. However, keeping her otherworldly calls with Sam a secret isn’t easy, especially when Julie witnesses the suffering Sam’s family is going through. Unable to stand by the sidelines and watch their shared loved ones in pain, Julie is torn between spilling the truth about her calls with Sam and risking their connection and losing him forever.

I was provided an uncorrected bound manuscript from the author. My honest opinions in this book review reflect this version and may be different to the final version of the book.

It’s been two months since I finished You’ve Reached Sam, and it’s a book that has stayed with me since. I think about this book almost every other day. You’ve Reached Sam is a story that confronts grief in its most intense and most painful. And yet, though I was a sobbing, snotty mess by the end of the book, its tender and genuine portrayal of love in its most pure form was also unexpectedly healing.

You’ve Reached Sam follows Julie, a white teen who endures the unthinkable: her love of her life, Sam, a Japanese-American teen, dies unexpectedly and suddenly in a car accident. Heartbroken, Julie struggles to accept his death and her grief. But when she calls his voicemail one day, just to hear his voice one more time, the unthinkable happens again: he picks up. Now connected to Sam in mysterious ways, she is able to talk to him, confide in him like she used to. However, the connection is temporary, and Julie will have to find a way to move on and say goodbye.

One of my greatest and most intense fears is losing someone that I love. And then you have You’ve Reached Sam, which is that fear in book form. For this reason, You’ve Reached Sam reads very personally to me; I felt, through the storytelling and the emotions conveyed by Julie, that this book genuinely understood that fear and confronts it unflinchingly, unafraid to show the unfiltered grief and devastation that follows. The story also depicts the moments of happiness and joy that Sam and Julie shared, making the story all the more painful and heart-aching. (Thanks, Dustin.) It portrays the insurmountable task of moving on from a love so great and so pure that you know, deep in your bones, that you will never find something close to it ever again. If given the chance to speak to someone you love and who you could, in reality, never speak to again, would you take that chance? (Personally, I would, without hesitation.)

Unsurprisingly, You’ve Reached Sam is a poignant and heartbreaking portrayal and exploration of the throes of grief. It isnot a how-to or a rulebook of how to overcome grief. Grief in this book isn’t like the arbitrary and flawed five-stages of grief model that follows a methodological lock-step way. Grief in You’ve Reached Sam is messy; it is cruel and unforgiving and painful. Julie, the protagonist of this story, is not a protagonist that people who enjoy neat and ‘logical’ characters will like. I enjoyed You’ve Reached Sam because Julie was the opposite of that; she was a character whose grieving I related to – pain upon pain upon pain, in constant flux, a refusal to let go or to face grief. Because the truth is, grieving is confusing and painful and desperate and non-linear. I liked that You’ve Reached Sam depicts this fraught process, even if it is uncomfortable and frustrating.

In tandem to its portrayal of grief, You’ve Reached Sam is about how we find a way to move on. At the beginning of the book – and after Julie makes a connection with Sam – moving on feels impossible. How can you move on from the person who love, when he is gone but isn’t really quite gone yet? What You’ve Reached Sam slowly shows is that the impossible task of moving on is ultimately possible – it is taking things day by day, finding your feet, and sharing the burden of grief with others. I liked that the story shows how grief makes everything feel tenuous and shaky, and how it can also affect the relationships that we have with others – for good or bad. I really loved how the story explored this; that connections are never really broken, that fractured connections can be made anew and made stronger.

You’ve Reached Sam has been notably compared to one of Dustin and I’s favourite movies in the world, Your Name (Kimi no na Wa). Though the stories are very different thematically, they do share some elements. Most distinctly, both You’ve Reached Sam and Your Name have fantastical elements; the magical connection that Julie and Sam have is similar to that we see in Your Name. I think a beautiful part of this book is that there really isn’t an explanation as to how Julie and Sam are connected; it’s not about the how, but about the why. The impossible connection blurs fantasy and real, underpinning their close and intense bond and therefore offers a great device that explores the complexities of grief and letting go.

MY CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Emotional, evocative, and a vulnerable portrayal of grief and moving on, You’ve Reached Sam will leave its mark upon hearts and tearducts everywhere. I loved this book; I felt its tenderness, its pain, and its daring hope. Do yourself a favour and pre-order this book – and maybe also buy yourself some tissues and a pillow to hug for the aftermath as well.

Is this book for you?

Premise in a sentence: A white teen, grieving the recent death of her boyfriend, discovers that she is connected to him through the phone, and grapples with moving on.

Perfect for: Readers who love to cry and feel pain; readers who love emotional stories about love; readers looking for a story that depicts grief.

Think twice if: You’re not a fan of slow-paced stories, or find it challenging to suspend disbelief of fabulistic elements.

Genre: young adult contemporary with romantic and fabulism elements

Trigger/content warning: death of a loved one, multiple discussions of grief and death, car accident

Goodreads | Indiebound | Book Depository | Bookshop | Amazon | My short review on Goodreads

5 thoughts on “Book Review: You’ve Reached Sam by Dustin Thao – An Evocative and Vulnerable Story about Grief, Connection, and Moving On

  1. Ahh thank you so much for this CW!! I was already excited about this book, but your review has somehow made me even more desperate to get my hands on a copy! 🤩 I am a huge fan of books that leaving me sobbing my eyes out and it sounds like You’ve Reached Sam will definitely deliver. Beautiful review! ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

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