The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

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“Whatever this is, it comes over them quietly: a sudden drowsiness, a closing of the eyes. Most of the victims are found in their beds.”

Friends, I was so incredibly excited for The Dreamers as I am a sucker for infection stories and the premise of this one sounded so interesting. While the writing is beautiful, I found the story had too many characters and suffered from a lack of a clear narrative voice that ultimately made it difficult for me to connect with and care about the characters. There’s a reader for every book, but unfortunately this one was not for me.

The Dreamers is told in third person omniscient with many characters to follow as the sickness makes its way through a small college town in Southern California. While this narrative voice works in a lot of stories, it did a disservice in this book for me. I found the plot to being mostly telling instead of showing, and unfortunately the downside of having a myriad of characters to follow in this narrative voice means you don’t really learn much about their thoughts and motivations. Ultimately, I didn’t care for any of them and I feel like the perspectives lacked any sense of urgency, which is something that I would have loved to see as a focal point of the characters as this mysterious illness begins to spread.

When I say that there is not a main character of the book, I mean it. The narrative shifts between… a lot of different people in the town as the sickness spreads to the point that I wonder if the main character is meant to be the town itself. In that way the reader is able to draw theories and watch the developments, but for me this had the side effect of being confusing because there were so many people to keep track of. This is a book that would benefit from having a character list at the front to help jog your memory while reading because the narrative shifts are not systematic: sometimes a lot happens before we revisit them.

As a result of my not connecting with the characters, I found that this was a plot-driven story but on more than one occasion I found myself confused with the storytelling. There seemed to be a couple of continuity errors, such as characters falling asleep and then not being asleep later, and I honestly spent much of my time reading this book intensely confused. It is worth noting that I read an uncorrected proof and it is possible that the continuity errors I noticed will be fixed prior to publication.

Ultimately I think that what worked the least for me personally was it is unclear who is telling this story. Parts of it seem almost like a report after an outbreak but that did not seem to be consistent to me (and that scientific/noting it for history perspective would have SO WORKED HERE), and the ending in my opinion kind of made that less plausible. I was hoping that the book would be redeemed and come together at the end, but I was very disappointed with the ending and do not feel like any of my questions were answered.

I do want to say that the town is diverse ethnically, and one of the “main characters” Mei is Chinese American that is struggling to fit in with her peers at university. There is a heartbreaking scene at the beginning of the book where the others on her dorm floor make a big deal about a smell and find that it is a meal her mother makes that she loves. She winds up throwing away her food and being ashamed, and I really wish that racism was challenged in the text. I know that her character was meek and shy, and that things like this happen, but this exchange broke my heart.

Where this book shines is with the poetic writing. The book had such a strong start and I was instantly engaged, but unfortunately my engagement dwindled as more characters were introduced. The synopsis makes it seem like the book is about Mei, and while I felt for her the most out of the cast of characters she isn’t the central character to the book – had she been it would have been much stronger. My opinion is definitely in the minority as the average rating on Goodreads at the time of writing this review is 3.99, with only 22 of the 467 ratings being a two- or one-star rating. Take my review with a grain of salt and if this sounds like something you would enjoy, pick it up. If you tend to agree with my reviews… I might recommend that you avoid this one.

🤝 Inadvertent buddy read with Rae @ Thrifty Bibliophile, thank you for ensuring that I was not losing my mind with this read!

REPRESENTATION: Chinese American
TRIGGER WARNINGS: bullying, insensitivity to other cultures (making fun of Mai’s traditional cuisine), grief and loss, animal death

★★

You can find information about my rating criteria here.

A mesmerizing novel about a college town transformed by a strange illness that locks victims in a perpetual sleep and triggers life-altering dreams—by the bestselling author of The Age of Miracles, for fans of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Elevenand Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

In an isolated college town in the hills of Southern California, a freshman girl stumbles into her dorm room, falls asleep—and doesn’t wake up. She sleeps through the morning, into the evening. Her roommate, Mei, cannot rouse her. Neither can the paramedics who carry her away, nor the perplexed doctors at the hospital. Then a second girl falls asleep, and then another, and panic takes hold of the college and spreads to the town. As the number of cases multiplies, classes are canceled, and stores begin to run out of supplies. A quarantine is established. The National Guard is summoned.

Mei, an outsider in the cliquish hierarchy of dorm life, finds herself thrust together with an eccentric, idealistic classmate. Two visiting professors try to protect their newborn baby as the once-quiet streets descend into chaos. A father succumbs to the illness, leaving his daughters to fend for themselves. And at the hospital, a new life grows within a college girl, unbeknownst to her—even as she sleeps. A psychiatrist, summoned from Los Angeles, attempts to make sense of the illness as it spreads through the town. Those infected are displaying unusual levels of brain activity, more than has ever been recorded. They are dreaming heightened dreams—but of what?

Written in gorgeous prose, The Dreamers is a breathtaking novel that startles and provokes, about the possibilities contained within a human life—in our waking days and, perhaps even more, in our dreams.


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Hi! I’m Kaleena: book lover, runner, wanderer, and philanthropist. Life is an adventurous gift: through the outdoors and books. I run Reader Voracious Blog, where I post spoiler-free book reviews of science fiction, fantasy, speculative fiction, and mystery & thriller.

25 thoughts on “The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

  1. Awesome review! 😉 I have this book from Netgalley, though I haven’t got to it yet… It sounded pretty great, but after your thoughts, I’m a bit afraid now that I won’t like it either. 😬 I know that it’s very subjective, but I tend to like the books with great characters the most, so a lot of the points you make consider things that would probably botter me, too. 🤔 Well, we’ll see…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope you like it more than I did, Dora! Honestly most of the reviews are positive, and even some of them felt it was a character driven tale. It just didn’t work for me, but I am interested to hear what you think about it once you read it. Hope my review doesn’t taint your opinion going in too much.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I really look forward to figuring out how much I like it. I don’t think your review will influence what I feel, if anything, it only made me even more curious about the book. I have one and a half book left before I start it. So, soon.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hmm… maybe it is the town? From the sounds of it, it is, because without the people… there’s not really a town? It’s a ghost town and wow, that can’t really be a character. 🤔

    Also same… because I feel with Mei except I never brought my own food or anything to school as a kid, but I still get a few weird looks in college (I say few because despite the fact my school focuses on diversity and inclusion, there’s always going to be people who don’t give two fucks) when I bring something that my mom makes that isn’t “Americanized.”

    But so much oofs. Sorry, this didn’t work out for you. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I honestly think it may have been the town, or maybe it was all… idk how many characters the plot followed were all “main characters” and I just didn’t see it. Who knows.

      People can be so mean and judgemental, and that scene was so sad. Yes, fish smells in general but that was just malicious, especially because Mei was shy and struggling to fit in with her peers. Sorry people do that to you though. I’d eat your mom’s food!

      Like

  3. Lovely review!
    I had this on my list for a while. Poetic writing is something i really enjoy, but the lack of focus on main characters doesn’t sound appealing to me either.

    The storytelling style reminds me of Beartown, which is my fave this year, but that one had main characters and despite the omniscient stuff it was showing, not telling. So it can be done 🤔

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting that you bring up Beartown because I think that was listed as a comp for this book. I generally really enjoy poetic writing, but I just struggled to care here… I really need to connect to characters for maximum enjoyment. Rachel loved this book though, so don’t write it off completely!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Kaleena, you are a pro at writing a balanced review. I liked this book more than you, but I can understand all your points. That scene with Mei broke my heart, too, and I thought “that” was the message, but you are right, the author could have driven the point home better, stronger. Otherwise, only people who already think like you and I may get that Mei shouldn’t have been treated that way. Lovely, deeply thoughtful review.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I read and reviewed this book without reading either your or Rae’s reviews (wanted to form my own opinions) and totally came away with many of the same conclusions. I’m honestly a little confused why people on goodreads seemed to like it? I guess if you’re new to the genre some of the flaws might not be so apparent? Who knows…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read your review a couple of days ago, and excellent job on it. As sad as I am to not have enjoyed it, it is kind of nice that others are having a similar experience (especially since you liked the author’s prior book). Thanks for stopping by & sharing your thoughts

      Like

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