A publisher sent me an autographed copy of the paperback of I’ll Be There to me recently and I was pretty excited. It was already on my list because of its great cover (not too girly compared to many recent additions to our store’s YA section), and all the praise it has received: LA public libraries picked it (Best of YA!); Chicago libraries picked it (Best of the Best!) and YALSA picked it (Best Fiction for YA Books!) – not to mention recommendations from the Horn Book Review, SLJ, VOYA and Gayle Forman. All in all, it seemed like a worthwhile read.
And I think I wouldn’t have had such a strong reaction if not for all this advance praise and hype. But fairly or unfairly, I didn’t enjoy it as much as everyone else in the world (or at least on the back cover and goodreads) did.
I quickly bristled at the overbearing narrator/voice over that has very few limits on its omniscience. Not only is the present and past told (with occasional foreshadows of the future), but the narrator dips into almost every character’s head. This is not a bad thing in itself, but the narrator also intrudes on many of the conversations, often summarising what is said rather than presenting the dialogue for the reader to interpret and enjoy (strange for an author who usually writes screenplays!).
Next (as a practising non-religious person), I found there was a lot of hidden religion in this book. Not that Sloan mentions God or faith very much – but a decidedly Christian sense of moral goodness and righteousness did permeate the book. First, there is the god-like narrator with his/her divine plan and omniscient knowledge about every outcome of every action. Second are the themes of small acts affecting others (which comes off a bit like divine planning), and keeping faith with others no matter what. Third, the main characters (the good characters) are all extremely wholesome and squeaky clean. The romance between Sam and Emily (I know – I haven’t even introduced them yet) is purely emotional and ethereal with very few hints of sexual desire or tension. And of course the first scene happens in a church.
The basic story is that teenage Emily sees teenage Sam and it is love at first sight (of course). Even more than usual, their relationship is based on an unexpected, unexplained connection that draws them together despite improbable odds and significant obstacles (I really believe the author is talking about souls recognising each other). The main hitch is Sam’s family. His father is a crazy criminal (literally insane) and has kept Sam and his younger brother Riddle secluded from the world in his paranoid flight from town to town since he kidnapped them from their mother years ago. Sam begins seeing Emily despite the danger of his father discovering her and of her family finding out about him, and despite the fact that it takes him away from the 24-hour care of his vulnerable, sweet, but very odd younger brother (an admittedly very attractive character).
Overall I gotta say that Sam’s character could have used a few less perfections: he is stunningly handsome, incredibly kind, impeccably honest, completely morally good, very intelligent, and one of the best guitar players alive (if Emily’s music-teacher father is to be believed). Sure he’s had every disadvantage with his crazy abusive father, no friends, schooling, or meaningful connection to the outside world – but this doesn’t humanise him for me – it makes him even more inexplicable. Again, I can’t help but think religion, souls and Jesus must be resorted to to explain such perfection in a character that grew up with so much pain and abuse.
Without going into the plot too much, I must also complain that Sloan seems to take the cosmic vengeance she wreaks on her unsavoury characters a little too far. The prideful, uncaring, and materialistic boy who makes a play for Emily in Sam’s absence is punished with a sunburn, bad fake tan, ticketed and towed vehicle, broken arm, injured foot, and total humiliation at the prom (I many have forgotten some others). It all seems a bit much, especially because Sam and Emily are entirely guiltless for all of these injuries. I can’t help but feel their hands are clean because Sloan taking care of all the dirty work for them. Mostly I think she relishes the bloody vengeance a bit too much (I enjoyed the first couple of scenes – but by the end, I was feeling a little ill on this boy’s behalf).
These complaints aside – I did enjoy the general themes of the world working in unexpected ways. The plot and characters (though often annoying) were enough to keep me intrigued, and I didn’t abandon I’ll Be There at any point. I see how those who like Nicholas Sparks or Jodi Picoult would really go for this book. I found it to be very much like the Jackson Five song it is named for – cloying and sentimental, but appealing if that’s the kind of thing you are into.