By Sarah Dessen
Caitlin has always been overshadowed by her big sister, Cass, and when Cass runs away from their parents and her acceptance to Yale to be with her new boyfriend, Caitlin’s invisibility only worsens. If she couldn’t compete with Cass, she certainly can’t compete with Cass’s ghost. It’s only when she meets Rogerson that she feels she finally has something of her own. He’s handsome and smart and only has eyes for her, but he’s also volatile, secretive, and possessive, and soon has her feeling more trapped and alone than she did without him.
The prose is competent, and the clash of love and rivalry between the sisters is decently captured, as is the paradoxical teen experience of feeling at once smothered by and isolated from even the most well-intentioned of adults.
Here’s one particularly indicative quote, regarding the “bad reputation” of Caitlin’s best friend:
“But I knew Rina. I knew she only chased boys because her father […] had refused to acknowledge her as his daughter, even after a blood test proved otherwise.”
That’s apparently what Dessen considers a compassionate and progressive defense of an underage victim of slut-shaming. Note that it doesn’t even specify that Rina only chased boys so casually or so desperately because of such-and-such. No, not only does Rina’s shocking habit of existing while being both exceptionally pretty and moderately sociable require accounting for, but apparently a girl needs the super special badge of traumatic daddy issues to be so charitably excused for displaying any sexual/romantic interest, confidence, or initiative whatsoever.
Under the veneer of empowerment surrounding Caitlin’s escape from abuse, Dreamland is fraught with revealing little tidbits like the one above. When Caitlin’s neighbor dares to suggest in a flashback that Caitlin’s Barbie could have a career as well as dating Ken, it’s treated as a radical perspective, acceptable, but only as a contrast to Caitlin’s mother’s belief that cheerleading is the height of accomplishment for a teen girl, which is treated as an equally acceptable view.
Even Barbie, one of the most notoriously shallow female stereotypes persisting in pop culture, has canonically been a “career woman” since nineteen-sixty. This is not a groundbreaking concept. No, not in 2000 when Dreamland was published either.
Possibly even more disappointing, given the back cover blurb, is the perfunctory nature of the abuse plotline. Dreamland promises a story about an abusive relationship. The abusive relationship is there, in a dry, textbook way, starting with Rogerson’s flattering attention, his pitiable past, then his temper and his manipulation, but there are only about four full scenes with Rogerson in them throughout the entire book. Before the first time he hits her, their courtship is generic at best, and afterward, he becomes a faceless, absent figure of terror.
Caitlin shares in snippets of summary what being with him is like, how scared she is, how she still cares about him, how she gets used to his rhythms of abuse and apology, but the audience is left out of this rhythm, never given the opportunity to share or sympathize with her feelings.
In place of any deeper insights into relationships and self-respect than what could be gleaned by typing “dating abuse” into Google, Dreamland instead spends its short page count making clear that men in general are unqualified disappointments, and expounding at length upon how quickly and utterly marijuana will ruin your life.
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