The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker
There’s a reader for every book, but unfortunately, The Dreamers was not the book for me.
About the Book
Publisher: Random House | Release Date: January 15, 2019 | Pages: 303
Genre: New Adult, Science Fiction | Format: eARC | Source: Publisher via NetGalley
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?
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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.
“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.”
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 the characters 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 what worked the least for me personally is the fact that 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 historical 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.
REPRESENTATION: Chinese American
TRIGGER WARNINGS: bullying, insensitivity to other cultures (making fun of Mai’s traditional cuisine), grief and loss, animal death
Let’s go on another adventure together!