Here’s a novel that’s the literary equivalent of a totally rebuilt, souped-up, cherry red vintage Mustang that stays locked up in the garage, never to be driven. This is Cameron Frye’s dad’s car, slaved over, worshipped, revered, and eventually driven backwards through a plate glass window. It’s Thelma and Louise leading the entire police squad on a mad chase right up to the edge of the ravine, then stomping on the brakes, turning around, and going home — and the cops let them go.
I loved this book and hated it. To clarify, I wanted to hate this book, but couldn’t stop loving it; I wanted to love this book, but I couldn’t stop hating it.
Feck. Let’s get to it.
As with all Terrible Reviews, spoilers ahead.
Sleeping Beauties, by Stephen and Owen King, is the story of a parallel reality in which women start falling asleep. Once asleep, they become cocooned and unresponsive, and if awakened, they become (to quote the book’s excellent inside flap) feral and spectacularly violent. While they sleep, the women travel to another world unsullied by men.
Sounds freakin’ awesome, right? Social commentary! Gender issues! Horror!
So, as more and more of the world’s female population falls asleep, an otherworldly woman — who sleeps and wakes as usual but who has a habit of levitating above her mattress — appears in a small town in rural Appalachia. She (her name is Eve, *wink wink nudge nudge*) kills some meth-heads and allows herself to be taken into custody, and as word of her ability spreads, tension spreads and before long, a battle for the future of womankind breaks out.
Holy sharknado! I can’t wait to read this book!
That’s the setup. And it’s bloody fantastic. But then, once the pieces are all strategically positioned across the board, everybody — and I do mean everybody, from the characters themselves to the authors behind them — loses their nerve. The men, fighting each other with literal rocket launchers, stop short of their goal of killing Eve. The women, faced with the prospect of an idyllic world free of the strife that men bring (translation: ALL of the strife) decide nope, actually, we’ll go back to the world we had. And the god (demigod? Trickster spirit? Psychic rando?) sent to witness the whole thing gives up her quest and goes home with her tail between her legs.
Did I mention it’s 700 pages. Which is about 400 pages more than it needs to be.
*attempts to tear hair out*
*has no hair*
*gibbers and dances into the yard*
The concept. It’s drool-worthy; just reading the inside flap was enough to get me to leave off the other book I was reading (and enjoying!) to pick this one up. And the book itself doesn’t disappoint — there’s great characters from start to finish. Thrilling action sequences. Stomach-turning gore (this is King, after all). Despite all my frustrations with the novel, I couldn’t stop reading it; I churned through all 700 pages of it in just two weeks. Unheard of for me lately. I was reaching for the novel while cooking, during commercial breaks in This is Us, staying up way past bedtime to read just a few more pages.
The characters are deep and well-developed and flawed and rich. They fight for the things that matter to them, they have agency, and they drive the plot. (They just drive it at forty miles per hour when they should be at interstate speeds.)
In short, the writing is spectacular. (Again, this is King.) The prose is lovely and crisp, and the tension has this inevitable build that’s hard to do well. (The problem is what it’s building to, which is a giant pile of meh. Which brings us to…)
I can’t say that what I would want for any reader of any book I might write is for that reader to reach the end of said book, close the cover, and think, well, that was a waste of time. But I can’t help feeling exactly that about Sleeping Beauties. To wit: the novel ends basically the way it began. There is no great change in the world, no great revelations on the part of the characters, no great payoff to the supernatural plot that’s driving the whole story. The only difference between the world at the start of the story and the end of the story is that there are a lot of buildings on fire and a whole bunch of dead people. And some of the men have vowed to be nicer to their wives. (But the book is sure to undercut even that, pointing out how abusers make these promises all the time, go to therapy for a few months, and then go back to their old ways.)
The problem with the ending is not only that it’s anticlimactic (though it’s most assuredly that. Which is fine. The real world is most often anticlimactic, but one would argue, if you’re reading a Stephen King novel, you’re not reading it for a bath in the soothing waters of the real world). The problem is I don’t buy it. (Here, again, your spoiler warning. Bridge is out ahead.) The Kings spend a lot of words setting up what feels like an inevitable conflict at the end of the novel — this book is 700 pages, to reiterate — and in the last fifty pages, all that conflict just melts away like a sad Atlanta snowflake:
- The men, who have just mowed down handfuls of people in a shootout at a prison trying to get to the (supposed) progenitor of the curse, come face-to-face with said progenitor. They literally have her at the point of a rifle, undefended. And they lose their nerve when she puts on a display of her supernatural power. Which is great, except that they already thought she was supernatural, given that she caused the curse. But they throw down their guns and let her walk.
- The women, who, having fallen asleep in the real world, wake up in an alternate universe without men, are faced with a choice immortalized by The Clash: should we stay or should we go? Catch is, their decision must be unanimous. (Why must they be unanimous? Because go Fargo yourself for asking, the authors seem to say say — but more on that in a minute.) Their new world is near perfect. They learn quickly that babies can be born there just fine (though one wonders, if a baby is born in the alternate universe, is it also born in the real world? Women who die in the real world vanish from the alternate world, but the book is mum on this), so there’s no problem with living there forever. They miss their husbands and fathers and sons, but they almost all agree that the new place is better in practically every way. So when they have to make their choice, of course they vote to stay. Except they don’t. Somehow they unanimously agree to go back to the crapsack world they knew, with the justification that “she missed her husband too much” or “the new world was too good to be true” or “a sense of duty.” And, yeah, okay, fine. I can see that for some. Maybe even most. One theory the novel posits, after all, is that women are the glue that keeps this ramshackle world from going to pieces to begin with. But for every single woman? Not a chance. Nope, sorry, not buying it, especially when the authors go out of their way to craft characters who Definitely Do Not Need Men In Their Lives. But no, they give up actual paradise for a world that’s literally on fire.
- Eve’s entire arc isn’t a bad thing, per se, but rather a confusing thing. We’ll come back to her…
But really, the root of the problem is that the book is 700 pages long, and it should really be half that, if that. There are too many characters to keep track of. (When the book actually has a list of the characters in the front pages to help you keep them straight — and that list is longer than a single page — there are too many characters. When you have the thought, while reading: “maybe I should take notes,” there are too many characters. When you’re introducing brand-new, never-previously-spoken-of characters on page 530 of a 700 page book, there are too many characters.) And because there are too many characters, entirely too many of the book’s too-many-to-begin-with pages are given over to backstory for those characters. I just don’t have the time!*
A lot could be said here, so rather than deep dives, I’m gonna scattershot it.
First of all, Eve:
- What is she, even? She’s clearly supernatural. She wanders around naked and speaks in riddles and nonsense and occasionally sprouts vines and leaves or turns green. Other characters call her “goddess” and “witch” but she never identifies herself.
- What is she doing? She claims to be a “witness” and claims to have been “sent” to Dooling. But sent by whom? We never get even a whiff of a hint. And for a “witness,” she does a lot of interfering. Is she responsible for the strange events? We never find out.
Then, the “disease” itself. The cocoons are awesome, but what is their source? Is it a sickness? A mass-hysteria event? A parasite or insect infestation? Again, the answer to these questions seems to be “Fargo you for asking,” because we never know, and never get close to knowing. The cocoons burn with an odd spherical flame that, when it goes out, becomes moths but the farthest we go down that rabbit hole is a plastic surgeon saying “well, that’s obviously supernatural,” and never speaking of it again.
These weird moths hang around a lot, and Eve uses them as eyes or something, but that particular point is never fleshed out beyond being weird and slightly creepy.
And, not to go all lit teacher, but … what’s the theme of this thing? Empowerment of women, maybe? Yeah, there are great female characters here, but the most powerful one of all — Eve — just flounces around and then FedExes herself back to heaven or whatever when things don’t go her way. And yeah, the women found their own Utopian society, but then they give it up under a pretty dubious pretense. That men are pigs? There are all sorts of jerko men running around doing jerko things, but for a novel called Sleeping Beauties to be focused on the men (And I’m just gonna ballpark it and say that no less than half of the book is about men rather than women) feels like a bait-and-switch. That the human race is doomed to mundanity even in the face of truly miraculous events? Well, maybe, but then, also, why a story this long and involved to boil down to such a cynical premise?
I just don’t know what to make of Sleeping Beauties.*
The characters are great, but there are too many of them.
The concept is out of this world, but it fizzles out like a dud firecracker.
The writing is lovely, but again, there’s 700 pages of it, which is kind of like eating nothing but whipped cream for weeks.
To compare it to another King work, it’s very like The Stand: strange disease wipes out most of the people on earth, survivors have to rebuild society and war with each other as they do so. Less nuclear threat and religious overtones here, but the same general concept. The Stand is even longer, but it’s also significantly better, and I don’t really know how to square that except to guess that maybe Owen King isn’t quite the writer his father is, and he’s muddying the waters here.
All that said, here’s the footnote:
*Despite this, I devoured the book like a starving man in a cake factory.
Could I recommend it? That’s a tough one.
Looking back from the end, it’s far from the best thing I’ve read, or even the best thing I’ve read in recent history. If you want a post-apocalyptic story like this, King has better works on offer. On the other hand, while I was in it, I couldn’t put the story down, despite my mounting frustrations with it. And that, that unputdownableness, has to go for something, and a pretty significant something at that.
I just keep waffling.
So for all that waffling, I guess I have to give this one two and a half out of five overcooked waffles drowning in syrup.
Actually, make that a full three. Because it’s good to be King.