Audiobook Review: The Program by Suzanne Young
Suzanne Young's new novel, The Program, somehow got slapped with the label "dystopian." I'm not sure if this was thanks to early publicity or the viral nature of Goodreads shelves, or something else, but this likely inadvertent label has stuck, and it's one that seems to have stuck. Unfortunately, the dystopian label does this intriguing and unique novel a huge disservice.
If I were to slap a genre name on The Program, I'd say it's speculative fiction or allegorical alternate reality (which I don't think is actually a genre). It's set in a very familiar world, much like the modern day (it's set in my home state of Oregon, so it felt particularly familiar to me). Except in this iteration of our world, teen depression and suicide are an epidemic, one that's dealt with in an extreme way, hence The Program.
The Program is an extreme course of treatment for teen depression, in which memories of all things negative, painful and emotive are removed. Any extreme reaction can result in a trip to The Program, and those who return from the "treatment" are shells of their former selves.
In the case of The Program's narrator, Sloane, she's already seen what can happen to those who are untreated--her beloved brother died as a result of suicide, and it destroyed her parents. She made it through the dark days following her brother's death thanks to her boyfriend (and her brother's best friend), James. Together, they fight the darkness that threatens them. After that, a bunch of stuff happens (obviously, since it's not exactly a short book), all of which will massively spoil The Program if I share the details. But, let's just say, what Sloane experiences is quite harrowing and explores a number of compelling concepts including memory and social control.
Frankly, early reviews I read of The Program weren't particularly glowing. However, after an endorsement from Racquel (who usually avoids this sort of novel) and after talking to Lisa about it, my interest was piqued, so I ignored those comments and used last month's Audible credit for an audiobook copy of The Program. And I'm glad I did.
I haven't read a book quite like The Program.
One of the more fascinating elements of this novel deals with memory, and raises questions about the way we're connected to the people who matter in our lives. The treatment the teens undergo erases memories, which includes memories of people and their connections. Interestingly, the returnees from The Program invariably start gravitating to the same people who they were close to prior to being wiped clean, raising an interesting question about whether those we love are more than just thoughts and memories, but actually part of us on a deeper level, if they're part of who we are.
Another aspect that intrigued me was the notion of the futility of trying to eliminate all the bad from one's life. In this story, all of the negative memories are removed from the young people receiving The Treatment, and this leaves them as empty, flat. It's evident that painful experiences make up who were are as humans, just as the good ones do, that's part of our humanity, and The Program explores that in an effective, nuanced way.
My teen self would have been all over the scary notion that the biggest fear is not something external. Instead, in The Program the Big Bad is found within oneself. Sloane and her friends spend every day guarding against their own minds and emotions betraying them--they know what will happen if they exhibits symptoms of what are the normal highs and lows of adolescence. That's harrowing.
I don't usually address other reviews when I review a book (we all read differently), but I have been surprised by some of the reactions to The Program.
First, a lot of folks have missed the allegorical nature of this story, and that's too bad. I know that Megan McCafferty's Bumped and Thumped series have resulted in similar reactions, and imagine that's because this sort of writing isn't particularly common in YA. However, teasing out these "what if" questions is interesting to me, and it works quite well in The Program. I know the notion of a "suicide epidemic" has bothered some readers, and I do understand why. However, while I am extremely sensitive to the portrayal of mental illness in all kinds of fiction (books, movies television), nothing in its depiction in The Program bothered me, and I'm intrigued to know more about the background behind this supposed epidemic (I have many, many theories).
I'm also a bit baffled by the assertion I've read quite a bit that this story involves a love triangle, because I'd frankly be shocked if The Program went in that direction. Sloane is firmly entrenched in a relationship with James from the beginning of the book, and while another boy--the enigmatic Realm--becomes entangled in their lives, and there is a connection between Sloane and Realm, but it serves a different purpose in this story. As a reader, the love story I believed in was that of Sloane and James.
I listened to the audiobook version of The Program and highly recommend it.
It's very well performed and I appreciated that it's a bit understated, despite that this is a tension-filled novel. There's an outstanding bonus interview with Suzanne Young at the end of the audiobook which explains much of the background behind the concept for The Program, and also revealed a bit about where the second and final book in this series is headed.
The Program is one of my big surprises of 2013, and I can't wait for the sequel. This was my first time reading Suzanne Young, and I'm looking forward to her co-written novel, Just Like Fate, which I have a review copy of and plan on checking out her much-loved A Need So Beautiful series soon as well.