“Sleeping Beauties” (Scribner), by Stephen and Owen King
Of all the gifts a father can give his son, near the top must be a co-written novel. After all, slapping the name Stephen King on the cover pretty much guarantees a best-seller.
But King fans who crack open “Sleeping Beauties” may be disappointed. The book lacks the page-turning intensity found in so many of his classics. Father and son started with an intriguing premise: What if men and women were separated into two different worlds? Would the men freak out? Would the women create a kinder, gentler society? They’re existential questions that would seem to lend themselves to a 700-page book, but the novel’s answers to both don’t seem nuanced enough.
The plot is relatively simple. One day all the women in the world get wrapped up in cocoons as soon as they fall asleep. If anyone tries to wake them up, they turn into feral beasts and don’t hesitate to kill their loved ones. As they start to realize this, some women do whatever they can not to slumber, from superblack coffee to cocaine. Most of the men react in predictable ways — drinking, looting and arguing over whether to murder a mysterious woman who calls herself Evie and is the only female who can sleep and wake up.
The book opens with Evie literally emerging from a tree trunk in a cloud of moths. She’s certainly the most intriguing character, but her existence is explained away as supernatural. She’s been sent to Earth, we’re told, but by whom? And why? The Kings let those questions linger and instead focus on the men who want to kill Evie versus the men who want to save her.
The action centers around a women’s prison in Appalachia. Each inmate has a story and a reason to wake up or stay in the female-centric alternative reality they find themselves in when they sleep. There are a great many examples of why men are pigs and women would be better off without them, and then there’s our male hero, prison psychiatrist Clint Norcross. Dr. Norcross can’t seem to articulate why, but he thinks Evie needs to be protected, so he holes up with sympathizers in the prison and girds himself for battle with the men outside.
I won’t spoil the rest. King fans who enjoy his blunt language and vivid gore will find lots to like. A bulldozer runs over a man and “shreds of skin flapped like streamers”; a woman cracks open a man’s jaw “like the sound of a drumstick being torn off a Thanksgiving turkey.” In the end, though, the novel feels like it wanted to say something really meaningful about gender relations and settles instead for, “Can’t we all just get along?”