Mental health is a theme I am always interested in exploring in fiction. When I came across The Program by Suzanne Young, I thought that it would be a very interesting take on the subject.
Sloane knows better than to cry in front of anyone. With suicide now an international epidemic, one outburst could land her in The Program, the only proven course of treatment. Sloane’s parents have already lost one child; Sloane knows they’ll do anything to keep her alive. She also knows that everyone who’s been through The Program returns as a blank slate. Because their depression is gone—but so are their memories.
Under constant surveillance at home and at school, Sloane puts on a brave face and keeps her feelings buried as deep as she can. The only person Sloane can be herself with is James. He’s promised to keep them both safe and out of treatment, and Sloane knows their love is strong enough to withstand anything. But despite the promises they made to each other, it’s getting harder to hide the truth. They are both growing weaker. Depression is setting in. And The Program is coming for them.
Sadly, I was left feeling, “comfortably numb” by the end of the novel.
I tried really hard to like this book. Although I finished it, I thought that the book could have been tighter.
The book is divided into three parts: Comfortably Numb, The Program, and Wish You Weren’t Here. In short: before, during, and after the program.
I don’t know that the first third of the book was really needed. I don’t see why we had to be introduced to James and Sloane and then spend so much time seeing their day to day lives before The Program.
The one reason I feel like the first half wasn’t entirely needed was because Sloane recounts several memories of James in Part II. The book may have been stronger and just as effective if we had started with her being hauled away and had to discern fact from fiction along with Sloane.
I have battled with whether that was a statement or recommendation that I wanted to make because this book does come full circle. We see a young love, a love lost, and then a struggle to see if that love can survive The Program.
Seeing it come full circle made the early struggle of trying to get into this book almost worth it, but the rest of my problems all have to do with the logistics of the universe within The Program.
While the premise is really intriguing, this book lacks the science behind it. There are lots of liberties taken with the medical and psychiatric practice here, and this book reads as more of a romance than a dystopian.
If you don’t squint or have any experience with depression then some of those points may not bother you, but they did bother me.
In Sloane’s universe, The Program is the only cure to a national teen suicide epidemic. The problem I have with the basic premise is that the adults seem to think suicide is a disease that kids can catch like the flu.
They constantly say “spread suicide” like it’s as common as the flu virus and they refer to someone being depressed, or some cases just sad or grieving, as being infected. The teens are encouraged to hide their emotions and given daily questionnaires to provide self-psychoanalysis that gauges their anxiety level.
And these teens and students spend all of their time in fear of The Program and being flagged. So how does a cure like this actually help the situation?
Once someone is flagged they are placed in The Program. These facilities use memory drugs to target and focus on “corrupted” memories. In Sloane’s case, the memories they tend to target center around her brother, who committed suicide, and her boyfriend James.
Depression isn’t caused by memories, it’s a chemical imbalance. We all have sad memories. What the adults seem to think in this universe is that if any teenager is sad, or cries, then they are depressed and need to be fixed.
Everyone feels sad sometimes and being sad doesn’t lead to suicide. I fail to see this link and it bothers me that it isn’t there. There is no justification for why this course of action is being taken and why they need to remove memories in order to cure these teens.
Also, why isn’t the adult population affected? Why is it limited to teens under 18 when brain development and emotional intelligence is influenced into a person’s mid-twenties?
What really bothered me was the fact that this book seemed to rely on an ideal. The idea that we can erase the bad memories in our lives, connected to people, places or experiences.
This has been done before and it’s been done better.
The idea of selecting memories to forget was something I first encountered in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In this movie, a couple undergoes a procedure so that they can forget each other. Their environments are sanitized from the other’s existence and they can go about their lives in peace.
My second encounter with memory and personality modifications was watching Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse. In this one, volunteers are given to an organization where there memories are erased. Amongst the many possibilities that Whedon presents with the technology is selective modification, where he can adjust the body on a hormonal level.
In both these experiences they procedures are done voluntarily on adults, with fully formed brains.
The only universe where I can think of the removal of a “selective” memory or emotion being compulsory is in Delirium by Lauren Oliver!
And while listening to The Program I kept thinking about one of Hanna’s line from the book and resisted the urge to scream back at the characters:
You can’t be happy unless you’re unhappy sometimes.
By the end of this book I was facepalming at the end of almost every corner. I am starting to see why there is a decline in the success of dystopian young adult literature. It’s not that this plot didn’t have potential, there were just too many holes and too many logistics that I questioned.
If you want to read this book more for the romance between James and Sloane, then it is probably a good read, but the world building isn’t strong enough and although the stakes are high, that’s a deal breaker for me. Particularly when dealing with a very sensitive topic like teen suicide that affects so many people.
I was really hoping for some context as to where The Program came from, what the impetus was to develop it, and why this alternate U.S. government sees it as the only solution to the epidemic.
We didn’t really get any of that aside from some passing remarks about the market being flooding with anti-depressants and Portland, Oregon being part of a test run.
The book picks up towards the end, but by then it was a little too late to peak my interest in the topic. The steaks have been raised and the second book sounds promising, but I can’t be sure that I will continue.
FINAL RATING: 2.5 Stars
The Program is now available for purchase. You can pick up the audiobook on Audible or through iTunes. You can get a physical copy of the book through your local independent bookseller, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon.