Just about the only downside I experienced through reading Holly Goldberg Sloan's debut novel, I'll Be There, is that I've been walking around since I've finished it with the Jackson 5 playing very quietly inside my head over, and over, and over. (And there are days when I like the Jackson 5. Just not everyday). I suppose it says something about how much I admire this book that I am willing to let the Jackson-5-a-thon go, and tell you that you'd be crazy not to get your hands on this outstanding story as fast as you can manage. It's evocative, thematically-rich, exciting, and touching. It has characters you'll remember for a long time. It's what a book should be, but often isn't.
Emily Bell is not a good singer. She knows it, but her father doesn't seem to know it, or else because he's a music professor he doesn't want to believe it. Either way, he insists that she sings a solo in the church choir. But if he hadn't insisted she might never have seen Sam, the strange guy at the very back of the church who was never there before. The fact that Emily sings, and that Sam witnesses her humiliation, and what he does after she runs out of the church - all of this is the beginning of their story. From this small moment which seems to be based so much on chance, these two are intertwined.
Throughout their lives, Sam and his little brother Riddle haven't lived in one place for long. Their father is mentally unstable and he's a thief, a combination that makes him frightening and difficult to oppose. After Sam and Emily fall for each other, it isn't long before his father gets wind of it and sets events spinning towards danger for the boys and for Emily and her family.
Holly Goldberg Sloan has a lean writing style. There isn't excess descriptive fluff anywhere really, and this gives the narrative a sense of urgency and immediacy from the start. There's a taut feeling that makes you expect that some hard things are going to happen in the not-so-distant future. This makes compelling reading. I liked that for a story that was pretty close to a "love at first sight" scenario, you really do believe in Sam and Emily's relationship from the very beginning. It's hard for an author to convince the reader that there is something there that is strong enough to make that kind of connection natural and credible. Another impressive thing about the book is the way that the author creates these perfect little moments when a character does something small, but that is so significant and has such emotional power, that it brings the reader to a much richer understanding of the character's inner life and motivation. I don't want to give any of these moments away, but she did a particularly good job characterizing Riddle this way. He is a hugely memorable character. The only character who feels a little off is Bobby, the guy who falls for Emily and tries in his bumbling way, to win her. He seemed a little too close to a caricature, and for a novel as intense and as sad in places as this one, it didn't feel right to have someone who bordered on clownish feature so prominently in the story. At times, it upset the tone.
I'll Be There is part survival story, part romance, part family drama. It'll make you think about how a little choice might have the power to change your whole life, and that sometimes we're connected in ways that we will never even see. It is one of my best reads of this summer.
I'll Be There is published by Little, Brown.