Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Review of I'll Be There by Holly Goldberg Sloan

 Sloan, Holly Goldberg.  I'll Be There.  Little, Brown, 2011.

17-year-old Sam and his little brother Riddle's unstable, mentally ill, criminal dad Clarence has dragged them from one side of the US to the other, never allowing them to go to school or the doctor.  In fact, he doesn't even bother to feed them; the brothers live off food scavenged from trash cans, plus whatever small amount of money Sam can make with odd jobs.  They never stay anywhere long; when Clarence has stolen enough to make people notice, they always move on.

But in this new town, something is different.  Sam meets Emily; they fall for each other.  But after Clarence finds out and drags the brothers back on the road, life for Sam and Riddle rapidly turns from bad to operatically horrific.  A plunge off a cliff, multiple wounds, bug-eating, a hungry bear, plummeting down a waterfall, separation - oh, and a crazed and violent dad.

This book reminds me a little of As Easy as Falling off the Edge of the Earth by Lynne Rae Perkins; it's something about the way the characters connect and then separate, and how the narration might follow a minor character on his or her path away from the main plot before swooping back to the story again.  And of course this is a tale, at least for the brothers, about finding home.

Riddle is a wonderful character, slowly unfolding and blossoming from a pale and enigmatic little grub creating intricate technical drawings in phone books and rarely communicating with anyone but Sam (he seems to have a form of autism or Asperger syndrome) to a self-reliant boy who not only saves his big brother several times in creative ways, but learns to trust and love at least one other person besides Sam.  His relationship with Sam is tender and heart-breaking.

Although we hear parts of the story from Sam's point of view, he remains more of a riddle than Riddle to me.  His main traits are his empathy/kindness, his movie-star good looks, and his mind-boggling prodigal musical ability - but it's hard to pin him down otherwise.  Emily's love for him says more about Emily than about Sam; I couldn't quite see the attraction (except that he's a soft-spoken, sweet piece of gorgeousness).

The most complicated character might be Bobby, a rich, popular boy who has fallen for Emily - probably because she doesn't like him back.  Bobby becomes so obsessed with her that it's a bit sad and quite disturbing.  He provides some comic relief in the book, but it's nervous laughter.  You have to feel for the guy and the series of humiliations he endures - but he's also quite clueless.  Sure, his feelings are strong and real, but they're all about Bobby, not Emily.  Still, the reader gets to know Bobby fairly well, and it's a bit of a letdown to see him end up as a standard-issue jerk when he had the makings of a really unique jerk with hidden depths.

There are flaws in this book - with pacing and plot, mostly.  For instance, the series of outrageous setbacks that the brothers endure are so extreme that the fact that they survive feels like cheating.  Yes, we're glad, because by now we're totally invested in these characters - but still.  And as I said, some characters come alive much more fully than others, and it's not always the ones you might predict.  A very old motel cleaning lady has a bit part that is strangely vivid, as does a Japanese-American coin dealer.

Though not perfectly polished, this is a book that will stay with me a while thanks to the sparks of truth, intensity, and warmth that fizz through its pages.  Recommended for ages 13 and up.

1 comment:

  1. Poor Sam! His life sounds miserable at first. I would like to read this book and see the character development.