I’ll Be There – Holly Goldberg Sloan

Holly Goldberg Sloan is a screenwriter/director (Angels in the Outfield, Made in America) and maybe that’s the problem with her debut novel, I’ll Be There. It’s the story of Emily and Sam who lock eyes in a church where Emily is singing, badly, her first solo, The Jackson Five’s hit I’ll Be There.

Emily is the daughter of Tim, a music professor, and Debbie, an ER nurse. Her younger brother is Jared. She leads a nice life. She believes in order and destiny.

Emily’s interest in personal histories made her accessible to people’s deepest emotions. It was as if she had some kind of magnet that pulled at someone’s soul, often when he or she least expected it.

And that same magnet, which had to have been shaped like a horseshoe, allowed someone to look at her and feel the need to share a burden.

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 bathmat and fallen out a second-story 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 her 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.

Because everything, she believed, was connected.

I quote this passage because it’s a great example of how Sloan’s omnipotent narrator does the work for the reader. This character is like this; here is a story to illustrate that.

Sam is the son of Clarence,  a  psychotic criminal. Sam’s brother, Riddle, is somewhere on the autism  spectrum. He is also plagued with constant colds. Sam and Riddle have been on the run with their father for the last ten years. They sleep in their truck or in run-down houses. Sam looks after Riddle as best he can. They don’t go to school; they don’t eat properly. Everything they know they’ve learned from books they’ve found. Riddle is artistic. He draws intricate mechanical drawings in a phone book. Sam is a self-taught musical genius. He’s also beautiful, selfless and perfect.

So, Emily and Sam’s eyes meet and that sets off a chain of events which propels the novel forward. Not everyone gets what Emily sees in Sam. Yes, he’s good-looking and polite, but he’s not forthcoming with details about his life and that’s worrying to Emily’s parents. Until Tim hears Sam play the guitar and then all bets are off. Suddenly Sam and Riddle are pulled into the Bell’s warm and welcoming circle and it’s unlike anything they’ve ever experienced. So, clearly, it can’t last.

There are reasons to like I’ll Be there. Riddle is a terrific character and the relationship between the brothers is lovely. The narrative moves along quickly, perhaps because it’s written in short little scenes. But that happens to be one of the book’s weaknesses for me. The omniscient narrator doesn’t take the trouble to develop any one character particularly well. The novel is like a bunch of soundbites strung together. Worse, even minor characters (the hairdresser who cuts Sam’s hair; an old lady who finds Clarence’s stash of stolen goods; the guy who buys his stolen penny collection) get their moment in the sun. Do I really need to know how their stories pan out? I guess I do if I want to wholeheartedly buy into Ms. Sloan’s over-arching theme of destiny.

The tone of the novel is off-kilter for me, too. It careens from swoony romanticism to lives-in-peril to  slap-stick comedy.

Will young adults enjoy this novel? Probably. It’s easy to read and Sloan does most of the work for you – right down to putting white hats on the heroes and tying the whole thing with a pink bow.

Oh, wait, that’s just destiny.