The Sleepwalkers: A Novel

Image of The Sleepwalkers: A Novel
Release Date: 
April 9, 2024
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by: 

The Sleepwalkers seems to have a lot going for it. The main characters are young, beautiful, wealthy, and on their honeymoon. The setting is an expensive hotel on a remarkable Greek island, and the advance publicity is not shy about comparing this novel to The White Lotus, the iconic television series that is wildly popular. Throw in a murder, as The White Lotus always does, cross your fingers, and just maybe you have a bestseller on your hands. 

Except . . . The Sleepwalkers does not have Mike White, the creative force behind The White Lotus, at the helm. Instead, this book was written by Scarlett Thomas, an author who is no slouch but is not Mike White. Her highly praised and critically reviewed novels have sold over a half million copies and have been nominated for prestigious awards.

And this novel does start with promise. The writing is sharp and distinctive. Thomas is a master at descriptive characterizations, referring at one point to “the prettier girl, the dark-haired one, a sleek heron in a black bikini and a thin orange sarong. She was walking down the road in the sun carrying a bag that said, Istanbul is Contemporary.”

The protagonist of the book is Evelyn Masters, a young woman on her honeymoon. Because the book begins with a long letter Evelyn is writing to her husband, these are her observations we’re reading. “I look at the young women and remember what it was like to be them,” Thomas has Evelyn write. “but I don’t remember ever being her, with those sharp wingish bones and her extraordinary long calves.”

The writing feels like it has the stamp of approval from MFA programs everywhere. Thomas’ descriptions jump off the page and allow the reader to get into the headspace of Evelyn Masters who, if you can believe it, is honeymooning with the son of a man she has had a long affair with. What’s more, Masters started out as the father’s housekeeper and now has not only bedded father and son but succeeded in marrying the son, getting access to the family money.

It's a very tangled though lucrative arrangement, but as long as the main character is writing this initial letter, the reader is in for the ride. It’s when this letter ends and the husband’s begins, that the trouble with which the story starts.

We begin to meet many different characters, so many that it’s hard to keep track and it’s very tough for the reader to know who is on whose side and what’s at stake since nothing is made clear. This is a tough story to follow. At one point, the reader is asked to understand the transcript of a secret recording where words are misspelled because the translator is not fluent in English. At another point, emails (or are they letters? Who knows?) have entire paragraphs missing but readers are expected to decipher them.

And all the key action takes place during a major storm. We’re not sure and neither is Evelyn; her husband Richard dies that night but apparently someone is trying to kill Evelyn as well, so she goes on the run without many resources. She is, however, not above having sex with just about any businessman to get plane fare to keep running or to make her way back to the Greek Island where the story began.

There is also an evil inn keeper named Isabella who is Evelyn’s nemesis, and also some movie producers trying to buy the story of a couple nicknamed “the sleepwalkers” because they apparently walked into the sea to their deaths while one of them was, er, sleepwalking.

This plot is so convoluted that the reader wants to beg for mercy—either end this mess of a story or clarify the plot so it’s understandable. Alas, neither of those things happen. The book goes on and on and does not become any easier to understand.

The lesson? Just because your story is superficially like The White Lotus, doesn’t mean it has the same wit, compassion, and deep understanding of human relationships.