Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Program [Review]

Title: The Program by Suzanne Young
Series: The Program #1
Genre: Science-Fiction
What They Say:
Sloane knows better than to cry in front of anyone. With suicide now an international epidemic, one outburst could land her in The Program, the only proven course of treatment. Sloane’s parents have already lost one child; Sloane knows they’ll do anything to keep her alive. She also knows that everyone who’s been through The Program returns as a blank slate. Because their depression is gone—but so are their memories.

Under constant surveillance at home and at school, Sloane puts on a brave face and keeps her feelings buried as deep as she can. The only person Sloane can be herself with is James. He’s promised to keep them both safe and out of treatment, and Sloane knows their love is strong enough to withstand anything. But despite the promises they made to each other, it’s getting harder to hide the truth. They are both growing weaker. Depression is setting in. And The Program is coming for them.

What I Say:
This book was my first plunge back into YA in a long while, so I was itching to get back into that crazy world where anything can happen. Knowing me, of course a dystopia novel would be my first choice! This book had creepy procedures, seriously moody kids, and a unique chance to look at fate and human nature and if a person really is only made up of their memories. That said:

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Plot: ooh
At some point in the not-too-distant future, American teens start killing themselves. Like a lot of them, a third of the population. For no discernable reason, they sink into this sudden all-consuming depression that spreads among others like a contagion. In a desperate attempt to cure what has now been classified as an epidemic, the government starts the Program in one school district in Oregon. Now, if you exhibit any signs of depression, you can get flagged by your peers or your parents and taken away to the Program, which is like a sinister version of rehab, where I imagine phrases like "for your own good" are thrown around all the time. Because people blame antidepressants for infecting the next generation, the Program has resorted to a different kind of treatment: erasing the patient's "infected" memories (i.e. all of them) and returning them to society a clean slate. Sure, they resemble zombies in polos, but at least they're not depressed anymore! It's for their own good! (see?) Sloane is sad, but not depressed. Her brother killed himself, and her best friend was taken to the Program, so she tries her best to mask her emotions in public, trying to get by until she's eighteen and free from the Program's clutches. As things start getting worse, however, she begins to spiral downwards and the Program closes in. But Sloane is so endlessly stubborn and full of righteous anger, she'll never let them erase her!

I didn't like this book at first. The first big chunk of this book was like a moody lecture, where Sloane reminds you over and over how much life in her world sucks. The exposition seemed endless and never really stopped, as the story took on an almost cyclical structure - dealing in flashbacks and memories and characters/story elements that are essentially re-introduced halfway through the novel. These gimmicks all added to the eerie feel of the book, but I groaned at some of the repetition throughout. It's hard to explain without revealing key plot details, so trust me on this one. Perhaps an unintentional advantage of Suzanne Young's long-winded introductions, as characters began to forget people and events, I had by that point forgotten them too! To be fair, I did read the book over multiple sittings, so I'll attribute some of that to my own distraction. Regardless of my opinion of the book's opening, by the halfway mark I was absolutely hooked. It had everything: evil government, secret resistance forces, a kind-of love triangle (if you're into that). The last few pages left you with the clean break of a book that could stand alone, but also a gnawing curiosity about what'll happen in the sequel.

Characters: wow
Because of the premise of this book, Sloane is a good old unreliable narrator. It's not her fault, she spends so much time reminiscing on better days and worrying at length about herself that of course she's going to get a few details wrong, more and more often as the story progresses. At her core, she's brave and curious, but throughout the story she's also broody and snarky and too optimistic in equal turns. More than once, her personal opinion or assessment of a situation seems completely off, and in a weird way, that was cool to see in a book - the main character's mind and the reader's mind diverging at points.

James is that bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold. He cares deeply about the people he loves, but also by consequence hates everyone else and behaves accordingly. He's the rock that keeps their little friend group together when things seem bleak, but you have to wonder, who keep James together? Also, James's protective nature bends under pressure at times, and I wonder if - in the sequel - we will see this interesting dynamic again.

Michael Realm would be the comic relief if this book had any proper comic relief. He's charming, charismatic, and a bit wise beyond his years. He eases Sloane into a new and scary world by giving her someone to trust and befriend. But, well that's a bit weird, isn't it? That's not how people work.  You have to wonder about this kid's hidden motives, is all I'm saying. Is doing the best thing for Sloane really doing what's best for her?

Relationships: ooh
Sloane and James - Here's a relationship born out of equal parts affection and tragic neediness. It works because they're a bit of a team, living that kind of you-and-me-against-the-world life. I was impressed with the natural and non-ridiculous aspects of this relationship. They don't just suddenly fall in love, they don't agonize over having or not-having sex (although they have so many external forces to agonize about, I guess they can't find the time).

Sloane and Realm - Honestly it's pretty clear how this relationship is going to work from the very start. He's the Second Guy who also finds himself in best friend territory. He never stood a chance. Add on a hazy layer of uncertainty about his self-proclaimed personal hero status and I just don't know if this will last into the sequel. (Who am I kidding, it's a novel with deliberately set up loose ends. Of course it will.)

Special Features: wow
Let's be honest, the dystopia in which Sloane lives could honestly be much worse. See, usually with a dystopia, some small problem occurs in society and the government uses that as an opportunity to take over everything and enslave all the people in a world of misery and suffering and stuff. In this book, you kind of get where the government's coming from. For one, the Program only operates in Sloane's school district; two, once you're 18, you're completely free of them; three, sure your friends don't remember you after treatment, but at least they're alive! On the other hand, the way they implement the Program is completely counterproductive! In order to prevent suicide - rather than, I don't know, trying to make the kids happier - you present this rehab program, not one your parents drive you to, but one where you're violently dragged out of class while your classmates watch?! Which then makes the kids too scared to express their emotions, which makes them depressed. Who sat down one day, dreamed this up, and thought This is a great idea! I want to hit that person.

Parting Quote:
"It's fun to sneak around, isn't it?" [Realm] asks.
"It is. And I thought nothing could beat being constantly medicated." 
It's like they try to be a little snarky? But never quite get there. Alas.