Sam Border has moved around so much that of all the homes he’s lived in what he most remembers is the sounds: rain on an aluminum roof, a rattling trailer. Waves crashing on a beach. What he’d most like is to move away from his mentally unstable father, but he would never leave his brother Riddle.
Riddle Border is small for his age and doesn’t say much. Mostly he likes to draw the intricate insides of things. He looks up to his brother Sam, who is more of a father to him than his real dad will ever be.
Emily Bell has a special talent for observing people. What she doesn’t have is singing talent, but her father asks her to sing a solo of Jackson Five’s “I’ll Be There” in church anyway. It is on that dreaded day that her life intersects with Sam’s forever changing the fate of the Borders, the Bells and everyone around them.
I’ll Be There is a quiet, powerful book that captivated me. Even before being introduced to the myriad of characters you are aware from the spare prose and sense of impending inevitability that nothing is superfluous and everything is there for a purpose. As we are told in the opening pages:
Hers was a gift that didn’t have a name.
Even she didn’t understand what it all meant.
Emily just knew that the grocery store clerk’s cousin had slipped on a bath mat and fallen out a second-story open window only to be saved because the woman landed on a discarded mattress.
But what interested Emily the most about the incident was how the cousin had subsequently met a man in physical therapy who introduced her to his half brother who she ended up marrying and then running over with a car a year later after a heated argument. And that man, it was discovered, had been the one to dump the mattress in her yard.
He’d saved her so that she could later cripple him.
Emily found that not ironic but intriguing.
Now, at seventeen years old, Emily’s question was how she fit into the big scheme of things. Where was her minor incident that would change the course of major life events? So far it had all gone according to plan. Good parents. Decent younger brother. World’s greatest dog. Loyal best friend.
There had been no dramatic hairpin turns in her road. And not even any real bumps to speak of.
But she had lived in one town, and she had seen how small things changed big things. She saw every person as part of a ripple effect.
And, because of that, she believed in destiny.
At least that’s what she would later tell herself.
And that’s why even the most minor and average characters in I’ll Be There were intriguing and the changing point-of-view worked so well. Because from the elderly woman on the motel cleaning staff to the Japanese coin expert and the vain, clueless boy obsessed with Emily, you’re wondering which part they will play in her destiny and if it will be for better or for worse. As you can imagine, it’s nail-biting at times. I was on the edge of my seat with the suspense of how it all might unfold.
As their destinies hinge upon Emily’s, Sam and Riddle are just as complex and interesting. I loved Sam. Having never attended school past the second grade, his point-of-view is such an unusual mix of inexperienced and wise. His and Riddle’s last name was aptly chosen because with a criminally minded father they truly live on the borders of society. After so much neglect and abuse I badly wanted to see them loved and taken care of.
For those YA readers who are looking for present, multi-layered parents, you’ll find that in the Bells and Clarence Border. And while being very different in their parenting they are both a strong part of their children’s lives. Clarence’s cold, calculated way of living is as chilling as the Bell’s thought and heart are warming. There were a few achingly beautiful moments involving the Bells that struck me with tears as well as the strong connection between Sam and Emily, which is just as sweet.
Since a review of this book wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the standout cover, I have to say that it’s one of my favorites of the year. More than pretty-looking aesthetically, it represents the story proudly from the car to the figures, the wilderness, and the unexpected and stunning pop of orange in a starry sky. What’s inside may just end up on my list of favorites as well and I highly recommend I’ll Be There to YA contemporary readers who want something understated, intense, and against the grain. I’m very interested to see what Holly Goldberg Sloan writes next.