I admit it: I went for this book because of the cover. Something about the stars and the silhouettes and that beam of light promised adventure. Once I started I couldn’t stop, and I ended up reading the whole thing in one sitting.
Part family saga, part crime mystery, part survival story, it starts with a chance meeting between two teenagers: Sam, a wanderer who lives with his unstable father and beloved brother Riddle, and Emily Bell, a high schooler with a normal upper middle class life. Drawn together by empathy and intrigue, their friendship quickly becomes awkward when Sam meets Emily’s parents. How can Sam eat dinner with them when he normally scrounges from restaurant dumpsters? Emily can sense that Sam has a secret, but before she can figure it out, Sam and Riddle disappear from town, and that’s when the police get involved…
I can’t get these characters out of my head: Sam, the musical genius who lives to protect his brother; Riddle, an asthmatic kid who draws the inside of machines; Mrs. Bell, an emergency room nurse who wins Riddle’s trust with cake and his first inhaler. Every character felt believable and complex, even the ones who come and go in just two pages. Sloan writes with an odd, branching structure—Sam, Emily and Riddle occupy center stage, but there are consequences to their actions, and every time they touch someone else’s life, Sloan takes the time to follow those actions to their natural conclusions: a hairstylist finds business booming after using Sam’s photo in a haircut ad; three scientists become reality show stars after helping a lost Riddle. Instead of distracting from the narrative, these detours add further depth to the story.
Like the best of novels, drama and levity are often combined. The socioeconomic differences between Sam and Emily are tragic. The income gap between Emily and Bobby—a high schooler who vies for Emily’s attention once Sam disappears—is almost comic. Emily’s family is comfortably well off and they own a dog. Bobby comes from serious money, a world of fancy clubs and spas. The idea of keeping a housepet with the potential to soil the carpet would give Bobby’s mother nightmares. At one point, the book alternates between Sam and Riddle’s outdoor survival saga and Bobby’s bumbling attempts to prepare for prom night. I know some readers thought the juxtaposition was misguided, but I appreciated the humor. Reading about Bobby’s mishaps at the self-tanning salon only heightened my concern for Sam and Riddle.
At the end of the day, Sloan has written a story about family—the families we’re born to and the families we choose. Emily and Sam’s relationship forces them to step outside their comfort zones, as Sam makes his first friend and Emily confronts the kind of poverty that’s often invisible. The result is a daring, often wondrous book on finding the people you need where you least expect them. Of all the YA books I’ve read this year, this one gets my vote for the Printz award.