Saturday, January 19, 2019

Book Review: "The Dreamers" by Karen Thompson Walker

Confession time: I'm a total hypochondriac. I don't watch medical shows, because I've convinced myself I'm dying of things it's medically impossible for me to contract. I caught a bad cold two days after finishing The Stand, and I was convinced the end was near. I'm a mess.

Needless to say, it might not have been the best idea to finish Karen Thompson Walker's The Dreamers just before bed, but luckily I'm here to tell you about it.

"The only way to tell some stories is with the oldest, most familiar words: this here, this is the breaking of a heart."

Another semester of college has started in a sleepy Southern California town. Kara leaves a party one night saying she doesn't feel well. Everyone figures she's probably had too much to drink. She gets into bed and falls asleep. She's still asleep when her roommate, Mei, leaves for class the next morning, but Mei isn't concerned, because Kara has done this before. Kara is still asleep when evening comes, but no one can wake her, not Mei, not Kara's friends, not even the paramedics or the doctors at the hospital where she was taken.

The doctors can't figure out what's wrong with her, nor can they explain why she dies the next day. But everyone is unprepared when a second girl in Kara's dorm falls asleep, then a third. That's when panic starts to set in, and as more students, and others they come into contact with at the school fall asleep, fears of an epidemic are sparked.

While doctors are stymied by what is sweeping through the college, and how it can be prevented from spreading, they also make an unusual discovery: "there is more activity in these minds than has ever been recorded in any human brain—awake or asleep."

Slowly, the virus begins to spread through this small town. First it's the hospital and college personnel who fall prey, and then it starts to affect an ever-widening circle of those they've come into contact with. Sarah and Libby, two young sisters, are determined to protect themselves; Ben and Annie, two young professors, withstand the strains of their marriage to try and keep their infant daughter safe; Nathaniel, another professor, worries he may be kept from visiting his husband, who is in a nursing home; and Mei, who, along with another student, tries to make a difference once she stops submerging herself in her own fears.

The Dreamers is a tremendously thought-provoking book about how we come together and tear ourselves apart in the midst of a crisis like this. It's a portrait of fear, courage, love, stubbornness, sacrifice, and selfishness, and the stories of those affected and those waiting to see if they'll be next are very poignant.

As she proved with her first book, The Age of Miracles (see my review), Walker is a great storyteller, combining scientific elements with fantastical ones to yield a book rich with emotion. Where I struggled with The Dreamers, however, is how things were wrapped up. I felt left with more questions than answers, and I really wasn't sure what kind of a message she was sending. The book needed a clearer ending more fitting of the complexity of the plot.

That criticism aside, this is a book that will make you think about how you might act in a similar situation, if you were any of these characters. I look forward to reading Walker's next book, because her talent is too good to sit idle.

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