Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Review: Life Is But A Dream

Brian James
Feiwel & Friends
Fifteen-year-old Sabrina has always been special. She sees colors in the sky that nobody else notices, hears noises that others are oblivious to, and can tell from the glow in a person's eyes if they're good or bad. Her overactive imagination makes it hard to be popular, but Sabrina doesn't care about that. Now though, she's in a psychiatric ward, diagnosed with schizophrenia. When she meets Alec, another patient, she knows they've met before in their dreams. Unlike everyone else around her, he doesn't think she's crazy; he says she's special and it's the rest of the world, full of mindless drones, who want to take that from her. With Alec on her side, Sabrina fights to keep the unique way she sees the world, forgetting that her visions haven't always been pleasant.

This is a difficult book to talk about. I'm not sure I've read a book specifically about schizophrenia before and this story, told in first-person from Sabrina's POV, takes an almost dreamlike approach to it. The way Sabrina sees the world is described so wonderfully, so beautifully even, that at first it's hard to see what's wrong with her view of the world. If she thinks the sky changes color and stones glow until they grant her wishes, so what? Sabrina's confusion and her distance from everything and everyone else is written so well; inside her mind, we see and feel what she sees and feels, and things aren't quite what they seem.

As the story progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that Sabrina's visions aren't always so pretty, nor are they harmless. The "static" she sees coming to devour the world is terrifying and even worse is her resistance to those who attempt to help her. Scared that she'll lose what makes her special and artistic if her schizophrenia is treated, she latches onto the volatile, troublemaking Alec -- the only one in the Wellness Center who believes she isn't crazy. With him by her side, she knows she can conquer anything.

Alec is an interesting character on quite a few levels. Unlike Sabrina and the other patients, his problems seem to be more like delinquent behavior than any real mental issues and his inability (or refusal) to see how sick Sabrina was infuriated me. In fact, throughout much of the book I absolutely hated this anger-driven, seemingly manipulative character who cared more about his own agenda than Sabrina's well-being. However, Alec himself is not quite as he at first appears to be and by the end of the novel my opinion of him had dramatically changed. The fact that the author was able to pull off this sort of character arc was amazing to me.

Aside from the obvious issues of Sabrina's mental health and her relationship and feelings for Alec, there are a host of other things going on in this story: the way her parents' deal with her and the bullying she endures at school being the biggest things. And while I often felt like much of the bullying was out of place in the scope of the story, in many ways it served an important purpose of highlighting just how messed-up Sabrina's situation really was. Like I said at the outset, this is a difficult book to talk about and the fact that it's in first-person makes it confusing. There's a lot packed into this slim book, but even with so many subplots fighting for attention the story still paints a heartbreaking, confusing, and ultimately healing portrait of a girl struggling with one of the most complex and dangerous mental illnesses. The quality of the story, characters, and writing surprised me; Life Is But A Dream is an issue-driven contemporary YA book that I'd easily recommend to others, especially if anything about the subject matter appeals to you.


  1. I have not seen any thing about Life Is But A Dream, and to be honest am not all that interested in mental illness. BUT your review makes it sound fascinating and like a really, really good must read book, so I actually kind of want to check it out now. Weird how reviews can convince me to try things like that?

    1. Oh, that makes me happy! & yes, it's definitely a fascinating book. Soooo interesting. I say read it.