Sleeping Beauties, by Stephen and Owen King, is a perfect example of an idea being more important to the authors than characters or story. The idea in this book is: what if all the women in the world were gone? It gets a Stephen King twist, of course. Here, the women have succumb to a mysterious condition that puts their bodies to sleep, cocooned in a web-like substance, and sends them to another world. Where this book goes wrong is that I think it required a lot of editing to get rid of extraneous subplots and characters and a lot more work to create characters that are better than stock villains and heroes. At times, I thought Sleeping Beauties was written like two men creating something that women might like to see because most of the men are just bad dudes and most of the women are victims or ass-kickers. Over and over, this book declares that women are better than men, using tired stereotypes that are as irritating as straight-up misogyny.
As women across the world fall asleep, Sleeping Beauties introduces a bunch of characters in Dooling, a small Appalachian town. Clint Norcross is a prison psychiatrist at a women’s correctional facility just outside of that town. He is one of the few good guys in the book, basically a white knight. His wife, Lila, is the town’s sheriff. With the exception of her jealousy and self-reproach, she’s also fairly uncomplicated. Their chief antagonist later in the book is Frank Geary, the town dogcatcher who drives the town to out and out war in the name of waking up his daughter. Surrounding the Norcrosses and Geary are a bunch of wronged women and the men who wronged them.
The most interesting character to me was, unfortunately, the most unexamined. Evie appears the day that women start to fall asleep. She steps out of the Dooling woods and kills a (male) drug dealer and one of his (also male) customers. After messily dispatching these men, Lila takes Evie to the prison for evaluation by Clint. There is no question there’s something not right about Evie. She knows a lot more than she should about the women’s condition and everyone’s secrets. She mysteriously claims to be the key to solving the mystery of the sleeping “sickness” and manifests some strange powers to back up that claim. The problem is that we never learn what she is, who she’s working for, or what anyone hopes to achieve by putting all the women to sleep. This was my greatest disappointment in the book.
Evie’s manipulations, coupled with the sleeping “sickness,” set up a massive war (complete with teargas and explosions) between those who want to let Evie do her thing (Clint) and those who want to use her to cure the women at any cost (Frank). Underneath this conflict is one between Men and Women. The sleeping whatever it is asks the characters (and readers) if women would be better off without men—but this question is woefully underdeveloped in the name of making that war more exciting plus poorly represented by characters that make it blindingly obvious how we should chose. The question is complex and should’ve been treated that way.
I recently read The Power, by Naomi Alderman, which also asked questions about gender balance and gender-based violence. Both books suffer from preachiness. I have yet to see a book that does justice to the inequality between men and women. The Power gave us a world in which women, once they had the ability to physically overpower men, became bullies. In Sleeping Beauties, the women shown to be superior to men in almost every way in a way that smacked of old sexist arguments about women being the “fairer sex” who gentle men when they can. I really wish that this book had created characters that were more than straw people.
I honestly can’t think of anything I liked about Sleeping Beauties. The fact that it was so long, at just over 700 pages, just made it worse. There is so much foreshadowing in the book about what is supposed to happen that it’s frankly annoying to have to wait for the payoff. So much of this book could have been edited out that I think it would’ve worked better as a novella or even a short story.