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Sleeper by MacKenzie Cadenhead

BOTTOM LINE: No. Just no.

Genre: Young Adult; Science Fiction
Publication Date: 1 August 2017
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“As if surviving high school wasn’t hard enough, Sarah Reyes suffers from REM Sleep Behavior Disorder, a parasomnia that causes her to physically act out her dreams. When she almost snaps her friend’s neck at a sleepover, Sarah and her nocturnal habits are thrust into the spotlight and she becomes a social pariah, complete with public humiliation.

When an experimental drug comes onto the market that promises nighttime normalcy, Sarah agrees to participate in the trial. At first, she seems to be cured. Then the side effects kick in. Why does a guy from her nightmare show up at school? Are the eerily similar dreams she’s sharing with her classmates’ coincidence or of her making? Is she losing her mind or does this drug offer way more than sleep?”

My Thoughts: When reading a YA novel, I always try not to be the judgmental adult slash parent of a teenager. I know teenagers do things that they shouldn’t. I know they experiment with sex and alcohol. I know teenagers can be cruel, fighting for every modicum of status in a rigorous hierarchy of cliques and groups. To pretend otherwise is naive and asking for trouble. Therefore, I expect these sorts of behaviors in novels geared towards teenagers, and I push aside any feelings of discomfort I have when thinking about my own children in similar situations. Unfortunately, Sleeper pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable in YA novels, making it a novel I neither enjoyed reading nor would recommend to others.

There have been numerous books about revenge over the years, and the best ones offer fascinating glimpses into the psyches of the victims as they perpetrate their revenge on their unsuspecting tormentors. While revenge is never the answer, these types of novels are always intriguing because they allow readers to live vicariously through those who are successful in enacting their revenge. These books do not condone revenge, but they are at least entertaining. With Sleeper however, there is something off about the revenge enacted by Sarah.

First, her plans are totally without forethought. She enters into each revenge action without a plan and with no concern about the repercussions other than her own feelings of satisfaction. Some of the things she does are horrible acts, violating bodies and privacy in ways that are downright disturbing, yet she only starts feeling a modicum of guilt after the situation has already spiraled out of control.

Then there is the issue of pacing. The story progresses too rapidly to allow for any deliberation or even character development so we never see Sarah’s victims beyond her own tainted thoughts. We never really learn if the punishment is deserving of the crime, if the girls she harms are truly deserving of revenge. We only get Sarah’s version, and she is too emotional to believe. If I am going to be able to condone someone’s behavior, I need more than her word for it that someone else deserves the nasty treatment she metes out to others.

Finally, there are the punishments themselves. We are not talking about a Mean Girls’ type burn book or the sharing of secrets here. We are talking about forcing classmates to do things against their will, violating their most private secrets, and sharing them with the world. We are talking about secretly drugging classmates so that they are oblivious to this happening to them, and therein lies my biggest problem with this novel. While Ms. Cadenhead is not necessarily condoning secretly drugging others, there is way too much of it occurring for someone not to walk away from the book with the idea that it is possible to do so without getting caught. Unbelievably, there is no punishment for those actions. One could argue that the state Wes is in at the end of the novel is punishment enough, but it is not. Neither Sarah nor Wes ever face the consequences of the drugging or of their actions against schoolmates.

What this novel is is one giant temper tantrum by a teenage girl who experiences social isolation at the hands of her “friends” because they do not know about her disorder and therefore overreact when confronted with it. There are so many different directions Ms. Cadenhead could have taken with this plot that could have been helpful in reminding readers that everyone that age is just trying to fit in, that true friends will stand by you, that the upper echelons of popularity are not the objective of high school. Instead, Sarah jumps into the deep end, using experimental drugs on others – drugs they do not know they are taking – as a way to make herself feel better. It is wrong on so many levels.

Sarah and her new love interest are despicable on so many levels, and neither one has the charisma or character development to pull off the evil villain vibe while remaining interesting. Sarah rationalizes her behavior as being a strong, independent woman, but one smile from Wes has all of her potential doubts rapidly disappearing. So much for being strong and independent. As for Wes, he epitomizes what is wrong with our culture with its vilification of rape victims and protection of rapers. I finished the novel hoping that there would be one final lesson that everything Sarah and Wes do is fundamentally wrong, and I remain disappointed that there was none. Sleeper is not the type of novel we need right now as we fight against increasing misogyny and a government that supports the groper in chief.

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