A strange but beautiful woman calling herself Evie shows up in a small town in Appalachia, murders the local meth dealer in a shocking display of violence, and starts making cryptic statements from the local women’s prison. Meanwhile, a mysterious illness has broken out all over the world, wherein woman develop fibrous cocoons after falling asleep and can’t be woken up without deadly consequences. Figuring out the connection between these two events is a job that largely falls to a local married couple, Clint and Lila Norcross.
Clint, the prison’s in-house psychiatrist, is a self-made man who made it out of the foster system with his fists but now tries to live a peaceful life. He cares for the women under his care and knows all too well how many of them are only where they are because they trusted or fell in love with the wrong man. His wife, Lila, is the local sheriff, a tough but fair officer of the law who has lately been harboring some nasty suspicions about her own husband.
When the illness, known as the “Aurora flu” after the princess from Sleeping Beauty, comes to town, the social order is upended nearly immediately. Panic sets in as the town’s women do and take whatever they can to stay awake. Pulling the cocoons off women who have fallen asleep proves to be a deadly mistake, leading some to take extreme precautions like burning the sleeping women before they can be woken up.
When word gets out that Evie has been falling asleep and waking back up like normal, two camps form in the town of Dooling. The first, under Clint, vows to keep her safe in the prison until she explains more about what is going on. The second, lead by a hotheaded animal control officer Frank Geary, vow to take her by force and get her scientifically tested until a cure can be found.
As that’s going on, the sleeping women of Dooling, including Lila, find themselves in a parallel world. Without men around, many of them thrive, including most of the surviving female inmates. More collaborative and less violent, the women mostly get along, though some still miss the men from their former lives. Lila’s past role as sheriff makes her a woman the others turn to, though she’s reluctant to take on the mantle of leadership.
It’s worth noting at this point that this novel about two worlds, one with almost no women (a few manage to stay awake) and the other almost wholly female (a few women were pregnant when they fell asleep) was written by not one but two men. Stephen King and his son Owen are perhaps not the people you’d choose to tell a story like this. If anything, their take on what a world of women would be like feels a little cliched and possibly naïve. There’s a bit of wishful thinking and gentle stereotyping involved here. It becomes tedious reading two men go on and on about how bad men are to and for women. I mean, fair point to be sure, but there’s no need to drag it out. It feels a little like their trying to prove themselves not like other men, if you know what I mean. All of which makes it a little funny when certain plot points really ruin the character of Lila and make her very difficult to like or accept.
Aside from the question of the book’s feminist bona fides, Sleeping Beauties is a curious novel. It’s very long, but lacks the heft to justify the length. Most of the bloat comes from the Kings need to elaborately set up the final confrontation. It’s an apparent attempt to frame the battle as an epic confrontation, with dozens of characters and multiple set-pieces, but it just doesn’t land. The Kings are also maddeningly non-committal about the source of the Aurora flu. Evie’s presence and her exact role are vague throughout. It’s one of many frustrating choices made by the Kings.
Though Sleeping Beauties has an intriguing premise that fits right in with the expanded Stephen King universe, it lacks the memorable characters and captivating storylines of his more celebrated works.