Wednesday, October 30, 2013

YA Guy Reviews... THE PROGRAM by Suzanne Young

YA Guy’s probably going to be out of commission for the month of November, as I’m participating in my first NaNoWriMo. But I thought I’d slip in one final book review before the madness begins!

YA Guy remembers all too well the comments Annie Dillard wrote about my college novel.

Yes, that’s right: the Annie Dillard. She taught at Wesleyan University, where I got my B.A. And she was one of the readers for my senior project, a novel titled (at that time) Selfish People. It currently sits in my closet along with two or three other unpublished novels.

But I digress.

Dillard basically liked my novel. She called it a “creditable achievement.” But she also wrote: “This is not, in any respect, my kind of book.”

At the time, that really stung.

But in the time since, I’ve come to see her words in a positive light. Bottom line: she liked my book, even though it wasn’t something she would have chosen to read on her own.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the subject of this review: Suzanne Young’s 2013 novel The Program.

Ordinarily, I’d say that this is not, in any respect, my kind of book. The story of a near-future society in which teen suicide has become rampant, claiming the lives of one in three teens, The Program is full of material I generally shy from: young lust, emotional overflow, love triumphant. Plus its principal setting--the psychiatric facility where narrator Sloane is subjected to the Program, her society’s “cure” for the suicide epidemic--felt far too familiar to other psych wards I’ve seen in YA. You know, the oppressive, Big Brother type, which seems to be the only type in YA.

But having said all this, I must also say that I just plain liked The Program. It won me over. It’s still not my kind of book, but it’s a book that, for me, transcended its kind.

Maybe that was because I really liked the characters: Sloane, her boyfriend James, her friend Lacey, her mysterious buddy in the program, Realm. Maybe it was because I dug the creepiness of the Program, which functions primarily by erasing its subjects’ memories. (Why this should cure suicidal thinking is never really explained, but there it is.) Maybe it was because I appreciated the tricky line Young walks in the novel’s final third, where her characters, memories erased, have to rediscover a love that readers know from the novel’s first two-thirds. (I read somewhere that readers should never know more than the MC, and perhaps that’s true in general. But Young did an excellent job of maintaining suspense and tension despite the reader’s superior knowledge.) Whatever it was, I found The Program a good, tight read, with a sprinkling of speculative elements but a far stronger dose of everyday teen reality.

So maybe I need to read more books that aren’t my kind. Maybe I’ll discover more gems like The Program that way.


  1. Good review, Josh. I'm curious, why did you pick up the book in the first place if it wasn't your type of read? What about it got you that far?

    1. Great question, Kai--I wish I'd addressed it in the post itself. The short answer is that I'd heard good things about the book via Twitter--so many good things I thought it was worth a look despite my misgivings about the subject matter. And I'll be honest--the first 100 pages were tough going for me. But I stuck it out because of the reviews I'd read, and about 1/3 of the way through, it really picked up. The takeaway from this: social media really can work!

    2. Very interesting. I've heard loads of good things and a few opposing, but I'm really curious about this book. I know what you mean about the social media thing! Word of mouth is so huge. Wish there was a magic formula to get it started ;)