Review: The Program (The Program #1) by Suzanne Young

Quick review for a somewhat quick read. I’m so conflicted reflecting on this book because there were quite a number of good ideas that I think Young had in parallels drawn in the book, but the execution and implication of many of those assertions seemed to fall by the wayside and actually bothered the ever loving crap out of me as I read through it. I can’t (and refuse to) overlook those things as they not only affected my enjoyment of the novel, but made me think about how we choose to portray mental illness not just in fiction, but examine it in the world around us.

It should be noted that we cannot simply rewrite the definitions of real mental illnesses and those who experience it in our society. I honestly felt that “The Program’s” greatest weakness was trying to provide an oversimplification of the heavy issues of depression and suicide and frame it into what was chiefly a romantic story presented within contexts of singular definitions of grief and coping. One could argue that the definition of “depression” given in the text was the product of manipulation by “The Program” itself (that was supported by latter notes of the text suggesting that the uses and abuses of the Program were causing the teens within it to fear and be manipulated into thinking there was no other way out than certain death rather than their pasts and identities being erased and manipulated up until the point they were adults.) But what gave me pause in the opening chapters in this book was how quick Sloane said she was waiting until her 18th birthday for the choice to kill herself. Not to mention reducing depression as just crying or being sad stemming from certain events, with the fear of its influence spreading to other people like the flu.

That’s not okay, at all.

I’m not saying that “The Program” was completely an offensive read to me; I got quite a bit of takeaway from it as a story showing a young woman (Sloane) grieving over her brother’s suicide and coping with having to hide her emotions just so that she didn’t have to get turned into “The Program.” It’s a horrifying scenario when your own family/friends/loved ones would turn you into this facility to be mentally and emotionally cleansed against your will, erasing everything you knew and loved about yourself, about the people in your life, among other things. That part of it I did identify with, but I couldn’t with the way the narrative chose to expand upon these things in places as well as the points of focus it chose through the narrative.

The story frames Sloane’s experiences as hinging on her romance with her boyfriend James and how it tears them apart. Granted, there are a number of events that occur leading up to Sloane being put through into The Program herself, but I think I was bothered by the oversimplification of their grief and fear, even in the context of how the text defines depression. That’s not me saying that one can’t use dimensions/perceptions in the history of mental illness and treatments surrounding it in parts of a story to make the medium have more weight (In the film “Return to Oz”, Dorothy faces being subjected to electroshock treatment in a facility after she talks about her respective journeys to Oz. She ends up escaping the facility, but it’s a darker moment in a children’s tale that created a real sense of fear/foreboding and had one rooting for Dorothy to escape it. ) Perhaps that’s something Young was aiming for, but I felt like the story really compartmentalized and redefined the issue without giving more context into the alternate world/universe in which the story is set. I had to suspend a lot of disbelief in certain holes this story had in order to get to some of the story’s better parts.

The other issue that bothered me was the treatment of sexual assault in the narrative. Granted, I know this realm is cruel. It’s brutal, if even in the very definition of the motives The Program has and the potential for use and abuse of those contained in its facility. But that said, not only did I not like the fact that Sloane was continuously manhandled by one of her handlers (especially given that he’d wanted favors of her to trade for things that could help her keep her memory once she realized she was losing it) and set her up to look like she’d been assaulted/raped at one point, but I also didn’t like that one of the novel’s so called heroes (I’m looking at you, Michael Realm) commits sexual assault and it’s basically just glossed over.

 

I don’t think wiping the memory of the person your affections turn toward after she fights you for deceiving her and then kissing/moving in on her the next instance when her memory is totally and completely gone of that day is anything remotely good in terms of consent. It’s downright upsetting and had me raging on Sloane’s behalf.

 

It makes it look like he’s this oh-so-great funny guy, but then that happens, among other questionable things. So yeah, I didn’t care for Realm at all. I don’t see this novel as remotely having a triangle despite it trying to force feed that on me. There was chemistry there in certain interactions, but none where I would’ve thought it’d lead to the place where the narrative events chose to go.

The romances noted in this book didn’t click with me as much as I hoped given some problematic portrayals and how disjointed it felt. I’ll admit I identified more with Sloane struggling to get her memories back and escape the hold of The Program, and I’ll admit that’s what makes me curious to see in the novels following this one.

I’m curious enough to follow this series, but I’ll admit parts of this story left a sour note with me and despite points of intrigue, it’s hard to say whether I liked or didn’t like it. I was more sitting on the fence through the entire read, and despite certain points of horror, suspense and intrigue in the “what if” scenario with moments of resonance with the relationships Sloane had, the execution wasn’t great.

Overall score: 2.5/5 stars.

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