BOOK REVIEW: The Dreamers, a mysterious sleeping sickness cuts through a college town

Walker, Karen Thompson - The DreamersThe Dreamers

by Karen Thompson Walker

Santa Lora College freshman Kara leaves a party early because she feels more tired than she’s ever felt before. Back in her dorm, she falls into bed with her clothes and shoes still on. Her roommate, Mei, finds her in the morning but isn’t alarmed since Kara’s fallen asleep that way before. But when Mei returns that night and Kara hasn’t moved, she calls for help. Soon, the “sleeping sickness” spreads throughout the dorm, the college, and the town until the government issues a cordon sanitaire, quarantining everyone inside.

The Dreamers tracks a handful of Santa Lora denizens: Mei, who had hoped to reinvent herself in college but instead found herself friendless, and her unlikely companion Matthew, whom the students in the dorm nicknamed “Weird Matthew,”; Ben, Annie, and their newborn daughter Gracie whom the new parents would do anything to protect; Sara and Libby, tween daughters of a survivalist and conspiracy theorist who have a soft spot for abandoned animals; Catherine, a psychiatrist from Los Angeles called to consult on the case; and Nathaniel, a biology professor whose partner, Henry, had to be put in a nursing home due to early-onset Alzheimer’s.

With any book shifting between multiple characters’ points of view, there is a risk that some characters are more interesting than others. That certainly happens in The Dreamers. Sisters Sara and Libby are intriguing, scrappy, and independent, and Mei has to push herself beyond her limits, and their stories are more fun to read. If I were a parent, I would probably empathize with Ben more, but instead, I found his reflections on parenting overly sentimental. Catherine is not fully developed, and while I found Nathaniel intriguing, his story was tangential. I applaud Walker for taking a risk in presenting so many viewpoints from diverse characters, but in this case, instead of adding to the tapestry of the story, it tends to dilute it. I think the novel would have been more effective if it offered fewer primary characters.

I love a good epidemic novel, and The Dreamers has interesting elements: a new and inexplicable sickness, people chafing against quarantine, and soldiers out of their element and uncomfortable policing an American town. Supplies run low raising tensions, and with anyone a potential carrier of the sickness, mistrust runs high. Although there are moments when I as a reader feared the worst, the book never indulges in the basest reactions to tragedy. I wonder if I am cynical and this is the point, that such an event doesn’t have to bring out the worst in people, or if in fact the novel is unrealistic about people’s worst impulses in a crisis. Though I’m sure this says more about me than the book, I expected and wanted a higher body count. But, what draws people together and what separates them, sometimes the same thing, is a background for the narrative. The book also highlights the challenges of separating fact from rumor in an the information vacuum that occurs during such tragedies.

The novel meditates on the difference between dream and living states and the nebulous barrier (if any) between past, present, and future. As interesting as these questions are, I’m not sure I feel any more elucidated after reading The Dreamers nor do I have a sense of Walker’s message in raising these questions.

On the surface, as a disaster novel of sorts, The Dreamers is a well-written entry in the genre, and, though flawed, has interesting characters overall. Drilling down into the deeper themes though leaves me feeling like I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be seeing. How much a reader likes the book will depend a lot on what they are seeking.

Thank you to Netgalley and Random House for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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