I’ll Be There by Holly Goldberg Sloan is a book I wouldn’t necessarily have picked up had it not been shoved into my hand on a visit to Piccadilly Press – and my goodness, I’m so glad it was. It’s one of those books that grabs you by the throat and won’t let go.
We have two protagonists, because at heart this is a star-crossed lovers story, perfectly pitched at its teenage audience (and – er – me). On the surface we have a ‘good girl’ and a ‘boy from the wrong side of the tracks’ but Emily and Sam are so much more than that.
Emily lives with her parents and younger brother. Her father regularly preaches at the local church and is a talented musician who has a cellar-full of instruments. Emily is not musical, and as the story begins she has been pressured into singing a solo at church – an event that frightens her so much she is sick afterwards. What gets her through the song is spotting a boy at the very back of the church, and singing it directly to him out of pure desperation.
Sam doesn’t know who he is. He doesn’t know his original surname, nor where his mother is. His father abducted Sam and his younger brother Riddle ten years previously, and has kept them on the move ever since, making his living through petty crime and packing up whenever the police got on his tail.
The inevitable happens: Sam and Emily meet and fall in love. But there is so much standing in their way. Parental conflict, of course, and the complete clash of two cultures. But the biggest threat to everyone’s happiness is Sam and Riddle’s father Clarence, who is certifiably insane. He’s impulsive, hears voices, suffers severe paranoia, depression – and is violent. When Clarence realises his boys are becoming attached to Emily’s family, he panics and abducts them yet again – only this time will be the last time.
This book feels like it’s in two halves: the first half deals with the developing relationships between the characters, and the second half is a survival adventure, as Sam and Riddle battle to escape their father and ultimately stay alive. If I could have read the second half behind a sofa, I would have. I was THAT caught up in the story, I was terrified there’d be no one left alive at the end of it – and Sam and Emily HAVE to be together, they have to! And Riddle nearly broke my heart too. Oh, that poor little boy. Just so desperately wanting a family, a mother – and a voice. The book explores the nature of relationships – not just romantic ones but friendships and familial ones; what it means to have someone there for you no matter what.
I’ll Be There was published in the UK in 2012, but I’m so glad I found it. If you like fast-paced thrillers with plenty of heart and an achingly painful love story, you’ll love this. It’s like a combination of Malorie Blackman, Sophie Mackenzie, Joanna Nadin and Sheena Wilkinson. Brilliant.