Title: I’ll Still Be There
Author: Keelan Ellis
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Pages/Word Count: 200 Pages
At a Glance: In spite of some issues I had with I’ll Still Be There, I liked its message of the enduring power of love.
Reviewed By: Lisa
Blurb: The summer after high school, Eli Dunn and Jess Early explore an abandoned brothel in the rural Florida Panhandle. They’ve always kept their mutual attraction unspoken, but in an upstairs room at the end of the hall, everything changes. Suddenly, all the longing Eli and Jess have tried so hard to conceal bursts free, and passion like they’ve never experienced comes to light, along with the ghosts of Clay Bailey and Silas Denton, murdered owners of the brothel. And Clay and Silas have no problem possessing Eli and Jess in order to express their love for each other, without thought for the living.
Deeply disturbed by the experience, Eli and Jess part and try to get on with life as best they can. But after several years, Eli returns to Florida, only to find that Jess has made some questionable choices. These eventually lead him back to the abandoned house and a confrontation with Eli. Old scores are settled and Eli and Jess reunite. But Clay and Silas’s ghosts aren’t finished yet, for they’ve always believed in the power of open and honest love.
Review: Keelan Ellis’s debut in Gay Romance, I’ll Still Be There, is an interesting blend of historical and contemporary, a bittersweet and tragic romance with a happy ending, and more than a little supernatural influence that comes into play to contrast the past and the present, giving this novel a touch of the unique.
Ellis pulls out all the emotional stops and offers readers not one but two love stories which juxtapose each other in one significant way. We first meet Eli and Jess in junior high school in 2002, when the two boys unite in defense of a girl, Cassie, who’s being teased on the playground. The three become the best of friends, but it’s not until high school that we begin to see clues their group dynamics are shifting.
In contrast to the contemporary we flashback to 1938, where we meet Clay Bailey and get a glimpse of him coming to terms with the realization that he’s wired a bit differently than other boys. When his father catches him in a compromising position with an older man, Clay leaves home, taking to the streets and caring for himself the only way he knows how—by exchanging sex for money. The anger I felt toward Clay’s mother for simply letting her son walk out was real and realistic and engaged me in the story, as we’re all too aware of the laws at the time. That anger only grows as we watch Clay being taken advantage of by the man who becomes his pimp. Eventually, though, opportunity gives Clay the freedom to strike out on his own again, where he soon finds a safe place to land and begins managing his own boys, meeting the one boy in particular who will steal Clay’s heart: Silas Denton.
The beauty of the contrast between the past and present in I’ll Still Be There is in the relationship between Clay and Silas, and what Eli and Jess are living out in the present. In a time (at this point, 1950) when Clay and Silas’s relationship was socially unacceptable, not to mention unlawful, we see these two men fall in love and then love each other with abandon, even as they’re unable to live out and proud. As tragedy befalls them, we see their love as timeless and immutable. Within the eternal nature of Clay and Silas’s love, we see the danger and struggles that existed for gay men in the not so distant past, how their need to hide affected them, influenced their opportunities to meet one another, and the sham marriages so many men felt forced into. And, in contrast, we see how difficult it still is today for some men to come out and live openly, even in a more enlightened time.
We watch Jess and Eli struggle privately with their feelings for each other as they come to terms with those shifting emotions, and we watch as Eli is weighed down by the fear of coming out in their conservative hometown. And though it takes the supernatural encounter with Clay and Silas’s ghosts for Jess to finally find the courage to admit his feelings for Eli, the damage is done—there is an all too important moment Jess and Eli are robbed of, though it also becomes this novel’s catalyst, causing a confused and angry Eli to panic and disappear in denial, leaving both Jess and Cassie behind him.
There are several characters I liked a lot in I’ll Still Be There, apart from Clay and Silas, and Eli and Jess. Ruth, the madam who became a friend, mentor and sort of surrogate mother to Clay, is a standout; as are Eli’s parents and Jess’s mom. The one character I felt was written as the disposable cliché in the book, though, is Cassie. She’s the woman we see portrayed quite often in this genre (the poor girl in love with the gay man), and while she served a purpose, the core of Jess and Eli’s story could have been told just as thoroughly without her, meaning she was more a convenience to Jess and Eli’s arc than a critical cog in the plot, then is used in a way that made Eli come off as callous at one critical point. While I’d have loved to see her as more than a device to generate conflict in the storyline, I did appreciate her being allowed to take the high road in the end.
I also enjoyed the way Clay and Silas became mentors to Eli and Jess, as a symbol of courage and the need to grab hold of love and happiness when you find it. And while I know flashbacks don’t always work for some readers, I personally was overall more invested in Clay and Silas’s story than Jess and Eli’s, those moments in the past adding a welcome emotional layer to what might have been an otherwise too-familiar plot.
While there were some points I felt might have been explored with more depth, especially when Eli returns to claim Jess in a way I found somewhat oversimplified in its resolution, it did serve to keep this novel low on the angst and moving forward at a brisk enough pace to make it a quick read, one I liked for its heartfelt message of taking risks and going for broke in the name of love.
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