I’ll admit I only read The Program when I accidentally stumbled upon it at my local public library. I didn’t seek it out and knew nothing about it, but the cover art (a boy and girl in yellow scrubs holding hands facing a stark white hallway, their backs to us) was intriguing so I checked it out. The premise of The Program is that teenage suicide isn’t a psychological reaction contained to an individual, it’s a disease that’s spreading like a virus affecting one in four teenagers. In an attempt to contain the suicide rates, The Program is developed. The Program cures suicidal tendencies by erasing the unpleasant thoughts and memories that lead to depression. Remove the contaminated memories, remove the cause for depression and the risk of suicide along with it.
Suicide as a communicable disease? Okay, you’ve got my attention.
Sloane and James and Miller and Lacey are two high school couples trying to keep each out of The Program. They make sure they each have smiles plastered on their faces and only display their real emotions in private. One hint of a bad mood can get you locked away for weeks, your dearest memories stripped away one by one. Sloane’s older brother Brady has already committed suicide, despite the fact he spent all his time with Sloane and her boyfriend James and neither of them saw any signs of depression. When Miller’s girlfriend Lacey is taken by The Program, Miller counts the days until her return, convinced she will remember him despite the odds against it. When Lacey returns after weeks of treatment Miller confronts the girl he once loved but her eyes are dead; she is a stranger. Lacey’s return as a shell of her former self is more than Miller can bear. A chain reaction of grief is started leaving Miller wrecked and Sloane and James fighting to hold onto the very essence of themselves before The Program wipes them away forever.
“Some things are better left in the past. And true things are destined to repeat themselves.”
Suzanne Young’s dystopian take on mental illness is certainly a new twist. In the world of The Program, suicide is contagious. Clearly this is science fiction, not science fact, but we’ll go with it. The epidemic only strikes teenagers and with parents desperate to keep their kids safe, they would rather their children loss unpleasant memories than lose their lives. Using this premise, Young tackles the question of what makes us, who we are. If you erase the moments of falling in love with someone, does that love get erased with it? The kids who survive The Program may no longer be at risk of suicide, but they have lost so much of their pasts that in some ways their old selves are dead. They return to hollowed out and empty and as far as Sloane and James are concerned, this is a fate worse than death.
Through Sloane and James we see what can happen when we forget ourselves and how some things are destined to happen no matter what we do to try to prevent them. For better or worse.
There are some things about The Program that don’t work for me. It took me some time to feel a connection to our narrator, Sloane. Frankly, it wasn’t until things went to hell in a hand basket that I started to relate to her. And then there’s the science (or lack thereof) of how suicide seems to be catching faster than chickenpox at a toddler’s birthday party, which is never explained (at least not in this book). The suspension of disbelief coupled with the lack of theory to explain the epidemic might be too much of a stretch for some readers. But over analysis aside, things start to get interesting after the first third of the book.
The Program is just as much psychological thriller as it is dystopian tale. You may think you know what’s going to happen next, but don’t be so sure. The Program keeps us guessing at each turn, and believe me it takes some very dark turns. This book had me intrigued enough to want to see what happens next.
Let’s see how the story holds up when I review the sequel, The Treatment.
Check out The Program book trailer: