Courtney Moreno’s debut novel is a study in trauma: how we experience and process it, and how it affects our relationships with the world and other people. Piper Gallagher is a 28-year-old rookie EMT, coming to the profession after a bad breakup and a series of dead-end jobs. She just wants to do something with her life, and if that means she gets trained by a badass EMT years younger than her, so be it. As she goes through training, Piper fumbles through taking vitals, filling out paperwork, navigating the streets of South Central L.A., and handling calls regarding chest pain to one man who can only say, “I can’t function.”
When she finally earns her placement and partner, Piper mostly has it under control. She even asks out the girl she’s been crushing on at the local health food store. Ayla is an Iraq War vet, with her own set of trauma to handle: PTSD and a brain injury that affects her memory. Ayla has developed strategies to manage her trauma, such as writing down conversations to reference later, and leaving sticky notes around her apartment as reminders. Piper, however, hasn’t learned to cope: she still hurts from her last breakup, and still thinks about her mother, who left her family when she was young and died a few years later. When Piper treats her first gunshot wound as an EMT, she doesn’t know how to deal with it. She references her EMT textbook, but finds that there are only four hundred words on coping with stressful incidents. Her only respite is swimming laps, the water buoying and calming her.
The plot follows Ayla and Piper’s relationship in conjunction with Piper’s career as an EMT. As the two get closer, Piper becomes more accustomed to her job—she can map any road in South Central, fill out paperwork quickly, and lift a heavy gurney like a boss. That is, until she gets a call that is far more traumatic for her than the gunshot wound. I won’t spoil the book for you, but I can say that the aftermath of Piper’s worst call is realistic and deeply felt.
The book is helped immensely by the fact that author Courtney Moreno worked as an EMT and field training officer, as well as a lab tech and clinical research coordinator. She holds a BA in molecular biology and an MFA in creative writing. This breadth of knowledge and expertise makes the novel entirely believable and adds a depth that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. Some of my favorite passages from the book are her descriptions of the various bodily systems: the brain, the adrenal gland, and the ear, told in scientifically accurate and yet lyrical language.
“On one end of your inner ear, the snail shell of the cochlea spirals down before rising upward into the concentric loops of the semicircular canals. Those fragile, overlapping archways make careful circles before feeding back into the nubs and nodes of vestibules, which descend into the trunk of the cochlea to start all over again. It’s a self-contained system. You can trace it with your finger like an Escher drawing, unsure where it begins, unsure where it will end.”
Moreno manages to balance right in that sweet spot of verisimilitude and poetic writing.
Ultimately, In Case of Emergency is a love story, and I cannot stress enough how refreshing it is to read a modern novel that focuses on the relationship between two women without it being an “issue book.” Their relationship is a key focus of the story, but the fact that it’s a same-sex relationship is a non-issue. Piper and Ayala both already know who they are, all their friends and family know, it’s just…not a big deal. There’s no difficult self-discovery, no awkward coming out scene, no fear at being discovered. While books about those subjects—about how hard and confusing and marginalizing it is to be on the LGBT spectrum sometimes—are important, it often feels like they’re the only stories being told, and it’s downright fatiguing. It’s wonderful to read a book where two women are having relationship problems because that’s just how all relationships are. Not to mention the complete rarity of having a bisexual protagonist, let alone one where her bisexuality is treated with respect and not as a punch line.
Moreno does something magical in this book, blending the emotional, the scientific, and the bloody into a story that transcends the sum of its parts. It’s a whirlwind of a ride, and feels—despite its drama, or perhaps because of it—like the most accurate slice of life I’ve read in a long time. I would recommend it for anyone who’s ever gone through a rough spot. It is a truly impressive debut novel from a highly skilled new author.
Pub date: September 2014