It’s 1998, and Sylvie Patterson, a bookish student at a Northern California boarding school, falls in love with a spirited, elusive classmate named Gabe. Their headmaster, Dr. Adrian Keller, is a charismatic medical researcher who has staked his career on the therapeutic potential of lucid dreaming: By teaching his patients to become conscious during sleep, he helps them to relieve stress and heal from trauma. Over the next six years, Sylvie and Gabe become consumed by Keller’s work, following him from the redwood forests of Eureka, California, to the enchanting New England coast.
But when an opportunity brings the trio to the Midwest, Sylvie and Gabe stumble into a tangled relationship with their mysterious neighbors—and Sylvie begins to doubt the ethics of Keller’s research, recognizing the harm that can be wrought under the guise of progress. As she navigates the hazy, permeable boundaries between what is real and what isn’t, who can be trusted and who cannot, Sylvie also faces surprising developments in herself: an unexpected infatuation, growing paranoia, and a new sense of rebellion.
The Anatomy of Dreams is quite different from my usual reading fare and honestly, it was the title that attracted it to me the most. It was drawing me in, along with that blurb that promised lucid dreaming. I went to it thinking it was science-fiction or maybe even fantasy, but I was honestly surprised that for a contemporary, it built up a lot of the world in quite good detail. Written in a first-person narrative, the story is written like a memoir – Sylvie recounting her time from the senior year of high school till she is 30, and told with shifting time perspectives, which keeps the illusion of mystery quite well until towards the third part.
I confess, at first, the timelines were throwing my concentration off with the story, particularly with me recalling details when picking off where I left off (as I did not read it in one stretch, it was difficult to get back) and probably this was the major problem with the book for me and the reason I docked off one star. The prose is lush with details, so that even though being a disparate memoir-style plot, you are still in the moment, delving into Sylvie’s mind and keeping up with her descent and turning around. The characters are rendered in shades of gray – and it being a first person narrative, we are never sure of the motives of other characters. It does not seek to resolve – this story – and that perhaps also frustrated me a bit. Sure, it was interesting to see the dynamic between the trio and also between Gabe-Sylvie and their neighbors, but ultimately I wasn’t satisfied with just a cursory sentence about her condition. Janna was also so interesting at the start that I felt she had a major role to play in Sylvie psychological journey, but she was reduced to being a sidelined character.
The main arcs of the novel are of course, the concept of lucid dreaming and more importantly the institution of trust. When you can’t trust your own mind, you depend on those closest to you to steer you right. When you are stripped of your defenses, does it really mean that is the real you. The whole philosophical issue with Sylvie and her questioning of the ethics of the research, is juxtaposed against a case that went wrong. That particular case brings to light, by itself, the hazards of the work they are doing, and was instrumental in Sylvie breaking off. Overall, I would give this book a 3.5 – for sheer ingeniousness and the way the subject was rendered faithfully and with good research.
Received an ARC from Atria Books via Edelweiss for review purposes. The opinions in the review are honest and unbiased.