Sixteen-year-old Samantha “Sam” Kang has long felt like the odd one out in her family. Her older brother, Julian, is a “literal genius” studying science at Yale, while Sam is a B-minus student who’s more into podcasts and movies than college application-friendly activities like clubs or sports. Her mom, Priscilla, is a lawyer, and her father is a doctor; Sam observes that together, they look “like an attractive, wealthy Asian couple in a BMW commercial. The American Dream realized.” What that dream consists of, exactly, is at the heart of Sam’s ongoing conflict with her mother in Maurene Goo’s inventive, funny and moving Throwback.
Goo (I Believe in a Thing Called Love) does an excellent job conveying the acute pain of clashing with someone you love fiercely—and who makes you feel profoundly misunderstood. When Halmoni, Sam’s beloved grandmother, has a heart attack, the differences between Sam’s relationships with her mother and grandmother are thrown into even sharper relief, culminating in an argument between Sam and her mom that Sam fears they’ll never recover from. Will Sam and her mother end up like Priscilla and Halmoni, distant and polite but with no affection in sight?
As if all that isn’t stressful enough, Sam winds up stranded at the mall, so she downloads a rideshare app called Throwback Rides and steps out of the driver’s beat-up old hatchback . . . and into 1995. The students at her high school are all wearing supremely baggy jeans; there are no cellphones to be seen; and everyone’s backpacks dangle from their shoulders by a single strap. Oh, and the gorgeous, popular, mean-girl cheerleader downplaying her Korean heritage as she campaigns for homecoming queen? Yep, that’s Priscilla at age 17.
Like Marty McFly before her, Sam quickly realizes that she’d better figure out what her goal is here, and fast, because her cellphone is the only way to hail a ride back to the present and its battery is rapidly draining. In the whirlwind week before homecoming, Sam works to befriend Priscilla and help her get elected queen; contends with racism, sexism and heteronormativity from students and teachers alike; and struggles to hide her true identity even as she gains precious insight into Priscilla’s relationship with Halmoni.
Goo’s characters are wonderfully drawn, and she explores the challenges and joys of intergenerational relationships with empathy and heart. Readers will root for Sam as she achieves new understandings of her family and herself. By story’s end, they’ll also resoundingly agree with Sam’s declaration that, no matter the decade, “Mariah [Carey] heals all wounds.”