Book Review: The Program by Suzanne Young

For Sloane, living a normal life means never crying in front of anyone–not even her parents.  Suicide is an international epidemic, and it’s being treated aggressively.  Teens who exhibit signs of suicidal behavior are forced into The Program, a treatment that involves starting over with a blank slate.  All memories of your former life erased.  Sloane only feels like her true self with her boyfriend James, but it’s harder and harder to fight their feelings of sadness.  As depression settles into both of them, The Program seems inevitable.

Despite overwhelmingly positive critical reviews, Suzanne Young’s latest dystopian novel is incredibly problematic.  The start of a planned series, Young’s novel is fast-paced, offers an intriguing premise, and has all of the features of a successful franchise in the making.  Despite all this, the novel didn’t work for me at all.

Part of this might be due to a slight feeling of dystopian-fatigue.  The novel has all the dystopian staples readers have come to expect from a teen dystopian thriller: a plucky (kind of) heroine, a predictable love triangle, a larger government conspiracy.  All of this equals a successful story, as long as the readers aren’t tired of the same old tropes and don’t find the novel’s central idea–that depression and suicide are contagious–outrageously offensive.

Which some people will, because Young does absolutely nothing to explain the science (or even pseudo-science) behind the idea.  Readers’ opinions about whether or not Young handles the tough subject matter are split, with some thinking that she handles it beautifully while others think she approaches it in a completely callous manner.  I’m not so concerned with her treatment of the issue (I certainly don’t think she’s treating it lightly) so much as her complete lack of world-building.  There just isn’t any substance to the story or its characters.

The lack of character development was probably the biggest stumbling block for me, because I just didn’t care about any of the characters.  While Sloane wasn’t a complete cardboard heroine, she didn’t have much going for her except her bizarre, angsty, unwavering love for the completely boring James.  Even her dalliances with Realm (ugh) inside the walls of The Program left me cold.  There just isn’t enough character in her characters to really sell it.

An over-reliance on plot contrivances (can we stop using rape/attempted rape as a means to build a relationship?) and a lack of answers in this first installment left me completely underwhelmed.  Although the novel flies by, I feel no desire or urge to pick up the next one.  That’s not to say that this one won’t find a readership, though.  It will.

The Program by Suzanne Young. Simon Pulse: 2013.  Electronic galley accepted for review via Edelweiss.

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