Sara Barnes is an ordinary college student. Perhaps she’s a bit more studious than most, given that she plans a career in medicine, but for the most part, her worries correspond to those of the typical university junior: getting up early for class, inedible cafeteria food, tough exams, freezing her butt off walking across campus, the rare hangover from a wild party. Studying and socializing with the other men and women in her coed dorm, she views herself as totally normal—even boring, compared to the more vivacious and fashion-conscious roommate and best friend, Beth.
Then, without warning, Sara’s life turns extraordinary. She begins to see the dreams of the people around her. Mostly, this is just embarrassing and annoying, but one dream recurs again and again, showing her horrible visions of a serial killer who targets young women just like Sara. She wakes up screaming from these terrible dreams—even before one of the girls she sees in the dream turns up dead by the side of a nearby road.
Fortunately, Sara has another extraordinary experience: love at first sight. Though she’s a practical young woman, she can’t deny the evidence of her body and heart. Shy, bookish and two years younger than Sara, Brian is an unlikely soul mate, but he proves his love and fortitude as Sara struggles for her sanity.
Supported by Brian and Beth, Sara descends into her blood-soaked dreams in a desperate attempt to unravel the identity of the killer, before he strikes again.
When I re-read the above synopsis of Dream Student, the book sounds hokey and contrived. Nevertheless, the novel really grabbed me. J.J. DiBenedetto made me care about Sara. I didn’t find her dreams very convincing—dreams are generally not that coherent, plus if she were experiencing them as the dreamer did, wouldn’t she have been seeing the world through the dreamer’s eyes?—but her near-breakdown in reaction to them rang true. I found myself eager to return to the book each night, to see what would happen next, even though at some level I knew Sara and her friends would solve the mystery. (Indeed, I had a strong hunch who the murderer was chapters before the characters figured it out.)
Part of the book’s appeal is the intimacy of the first person narration. We’re literally in Sara’s head as she tries to handle her terrifying new power as well as her more mundane worldly concerns, like her bratty younger sibling, Brian’s disapproving mom, and the competition for a medical school scholarship. We share her wonder and doubt as she grows closer to Brian. And she’s such a likable person, without being a goody-two-shoes, that I really started to enjoy her company.
Dream Student is the first volume in a nine book series that follows Sara from her college days through medical school, marriage and motherhood. I have to admit I’m wondering how the author will maintain the interest, without falling into a repetitious “Sara solves another dream mystery” pattern. However, I liked this novel enough that I’m willing to give the next one a try.
(I received the first three books of the Dream series from the author as a thank you for hosting him on my blog, without any obligation to post a review.)