The Program by Suzanne Young
Stars: ★★★★☆ (3.5/5)
So I rounded up the stars for good measure, because I really liked this. A lot. And I really wanted it to be a 4 star, but it just didn’t reach that point for me. I was rooting for the characters, and I’m not going to lie, I cried the whole time I was reading until about page 150-160. I was a complete mess, and I will explain why.
The first thing I’m going to talk about though is the premise of the book itself: depression and suicide being contagious and seen as a huge hindrance. I’m going to say this right now: I completely disagree with this, and it really bothers me that some people probably agree with this idea. There are so many problematic things about this premise, and yes I understand that without this idea, Young wouldn’t have been able to write the book at all. But this idea that mental illness is “contagious” is 1) ridiculous, as all mental illnesses are caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, and 2) adds even more to the stigma towards mental health issues and that really, really bothers me. It is beyond anyone’s control whether you end up with it or not. Yes, things can trigger this chemical imbalance, but you have literally no way of knowing whether you will suffer mental illness or not until it happens to you. I hate this idea in the book that “oh, you can’t hang out with this person in case they are “sick” as it will spread to you and then you will kill yourself”. I can tell you right now that this is not how mental illnesses work. Your friend having depression isn’t going to cause you to “catch” it. That’s something that really bothered me about this book; that people acted so carelessly, labelling people left and right as “sick” and hence staying away from them. This is also a huge problem that sends off a very bad message: if you think someone you know is having trouble or is struggling with a mental illness, you shouldn’t help them for fear of being ridiculed and almost shamed. In the book they use the term ‘flagged’ as they will then be taken to the Program to be “cured” but it gives off the same message: don’t help someone in suffering or you will associated with their sickness and then “taken away” or shunned in the real world. This whole idea adds to the already huge cloud of stigma about mental illness that exists in society today. While we are making progress, there are still too many times for me to count when one of my peers will say “this makes me so depressed”, “I’ll just kill myself” and “I’m so bipolar about everything” as if this is all a joke. As if people don’t struggle with these things every day of their lives. And I feel that the premise of this book adds to that.
Another problem I had, was that no where in this book, did I get the message that it’s okay to not be okay. It either gave off the idea that you had to hide how you really felt and suffer in silence out of fear of being flagged, or go to the Program and lose all understanding of the serious of mental illness. As someone who personally suffers from mental health issues, I found it astounding and outrageous that a book concerning depression and suicide would treat the issue so lightly. I know personally that in my darkest times, I would love to have someone tell me that it’s okay to not be okay. You will get through it in the end. The storm will pass. And I didn’t feel a trace of that anywhere in this book. At least, not until the main characters had lost all their “negative” memories and hence all memory of the mental illness. But that was a problem in itself. Just because you remove the memories does not mean you remove the depression, the hurt, and the heartache. The brain’s chemistry still runs, the chemicals are still imbalanced. And that was my final problem with this book: it didn’t provide a solution, it simply diverted the problem. I also think it is complete bullshit that 1) depression and suicide could become an “epidemic” in only teenagers, and 2) that too many “antidepressants” can cause depression in almost anyone. Yes, some antidepressants make you more depressed, but it depends on the person and the drug. People usually try different drugs until they find one that works for them. 1 in 5 people will suffer from depression at some point in their life. ONE IN FIVE. That’s a lot of people. And that doesn’t include a lot of other mental illnesses, like anxiety, panic disorders, bipolar, etc. I just don’t think Young thought this idea through too well, or she thought people wouldn’t realize the flaws in her premise. I don’t know. Maybe I just take this really personally, as both myself and important people in my life have been really affected by depression. All in all, I would have rated The Program higher if not for these problematic things.
Now onto the other parts of the book.
Writing: I’m not going to lie, but Suzanne Young’s writing wasn’t anything special. It was pretty good, I didn’t find too many clichés or tropes, but I’d say it was about average. The part that really moved me was Sloane’s monologues on losing James to the Program. Maybe it’s because I have a boyfriend of my own who is my rock, and the idea of him losing all his memories of me completely shatters me to itty bitty pieces even when it would never happen because that’s not possible (unless he get’s amnesia, although I’m not sure how he would apart from a car accident like in that movie with Channing Tatum). I just know I was sobbing the whole time and I was suddenly so terrified to lose him. I’d say that first half of the book was the most emotional and powerful out of all 405 pages. But other than that, I wouldn’t say I was overly impressed with the writing. Maybe the problematic topic put me off. Who knows, I’m a little strange that way.
Plot: I think the plot was done well despite the topic, and I really liked how Young divided the book into sections depending on what part of Sloane’s story I was reading. I never found the plot to drag, and I think Young did set a good pace for the whole book. I have to say I loved the ending, after watching Sloane and James be ripped away from each other in the beginning and seeing them gravitate back together. I do think the weird Friends-With-Benefits relationship with Realm was unnecessary but maybe that’s because I didn’t like his character. He just irritated the poop out of me. I do think the ending fit the story well, and as I was nearing the end of the book, I wasn’t entirely sure how Young would finish it, and I like how she did it. I’m pumped to read the sequel and see what happens.
Characters: I just have to say this now: I hated Sloane’s mom and Dr. Warren. Every time they spoke I pretty much wanted to punch them both in the face.They just reminded me of those adults that think they are always right about everything and don’t believe teenagers can make any rational decisions for themselves and look down on millennials because they think they’re above us. Anyways, I also want to throw out there that I would never forgive Sloane’s mom for what she did if I was her daughter. I won’t say what it is for spoilers, but oh man it pissed me off. I liked Sloane’s dad though – I could tell he was trying his best and actually thought about what his daughter wanted. I also liked Lacey and Miller, who I thought worked as good minor characters.
Sloane: First of all, I love her name. It just sounds so cool and edgy. I liked Sloane’s character. I liked how she tried to stay true to herself until the bitter end. I do think she made some stupid decisions, but some of these were out of stress so I’ll give her a pass on that one. She went through some cool character development (cool because she lost half of herself halfway through the book) in the way that she learned to listen to her heart even when everyone else is telling you not to, because your heart is usually right about things. Your head can be deceived easier. It made me happy to see Sloane really thinking for herself by the end of the book.
James: I loved James. His personality was stellar, and I want to be friends with him in real life. His little mannerisms and jokes were so funny, and he really made the book what it was for me. I also loved how real he seemed – I saw this in his love for Sloane, and the love he had for Brady and Miller. I thought his story with Sloane was very well done, even though it was told mostly through flashbacks by Sloane. He was cheesy at times in such an adorable way and I just ate it all up. I will forever be Team James, amen.
Realm: Oh my god I hated Realm. He was so irritating, and when I found out (SPOILER) that he worked for The Program, I do recall myself yelling at my book that “I knew he was a f**king snake”. He just ground my gears so bad they were pretty much dust by the time I finished the book. He knew Sloane had a boyfriend before she was in the Program and that she still loved James and he still tried to get in her pants and would not back down. And then he wouldn’t even tell her afterward because he wanted her to love him! Disgusting. He just got under my skin so much that every time he showed up in the plot this is how I felt:
I would be enjoying the book and then he would come and ruin it. The only good thing he really did was save Sloane from the creeptastic Handler and help her escape at the end. Other than that I always felt disappointment when he showed up. I might be biased because I love James so much, but Realm was not a likeable character to me. He didn’t even really undergo character development, other than him “helping” Sloane because he “loved” her after only 6 weeks of knowing her. He was just so wrong I don’t even want to talk about him anymore.
Overall, I did enjoy the book and I want to read the sequel, but I think Young could have done this book a lot better if she had done some research on mental illness and not made such irksome characters (*cough* Realm *cough*). I can’t wait to see even more problematic ideas in the sequel. (Can you sense the sarcasm?)