The Panopticon

TitleThe Panopticon

Author: Jenni Fagan

Genre: Commercial Fiction, Sci-Fi, we don’t really have a good answer for this one.

Readers: Policy wonk BakingSuit, copyeditor Lori, librarian Pam, day care teacher EMarie and nonprofit director Kimberly.

Summary: Anais Hendricks, fifteen, is in the back of a police car, headed for the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders. She can’t remember the events that led her here, but across town a policewoman lies in a coma and there is blood on Anais’s school uniform. Smart, funny and fierce, Anais is a counter-culture outlaw, a bohemian philosopher in sailor shorts and a pillbox hat. She is also a child who has been let down, or worse, by just about every adult she has ever met. The residents of the Panopticon form intense bonds, heightened by their place on the periphery, and Anais finds herself part of an ad hoc family there. Much more suspicious are the social workers, especially Helen, who is about to leave her job for an elephant sanctuary in India but is determined to force Anais to confront the circumstances of her birth before she goes. Looking up at the watchtower that looms over the residents, Anais knows her fate: she is part of an experiment, she always was, it’s a given, a liberty – a fact. And the experiment is closing in.

Our Take: A split decision. Everyone found it challenging and thought-provoking. Very dark and troubling. Lori and EMarie thought it worked while Pam, Kimberly and BakingSuit thought it didn’t quite come together. Definitely not light reading, but perhaps a good pick for those who like a challenge.


I don’t know what to say about The Panopticon because I have very mixed feelings about it.

It had a lot of potential to be a great book, but I felt like the author couldn’t decide which story to follow. Did she want to follow the drug addled thoughts of a delinquent, prone to violence teen who has been in and out of the system her whole life? Or did she want to follow a more sci/fi plot? This could have been a great dystopian thriller or a tale of redemption and freedom, but alas it was neither.

I don’t know that I enjoyed the story itself. It was difficult to read after knowing friends and former students who have been through similar circumstances. I can say without a doubt that I liked the characters. Isla, Tash, Shortie, and John could have been developed a little more, but Anais’s interactions with them helped me forgive her delinquencies. I found myself very much wanting her to get away with her next bit of naughtiness, to find mental and physical freedom, and to get to Paris.

This is not a book for someone who is offended by vulgar language, dark imagery, or violence. I’d also caution anyone who has trouble reading unusual dialects as much of this book is written in what I might best describe as Scottish slang. I found myself rereading pages several times to figure out what they were saying, sometimes using Google or saying the words out loud to figure out what they meant. Also, although Anais is a teen and many of the characters are teens, this isn’t a book I would hand most of the Young Adult readers I know. In fact, I’m not sure I’d hand this book to many adults.

Grade: C



I was disturbed by this book–but in a good way. I do not think the publisher’s description matches what this book is really about, which is a child growing up amidst in the horrible hidden atrocities of “the system.” I may not have picked this book up if I had known what it was; I was thinking something more along the line of A Handmaid’s Tale. But it was an eye-opening read, for sure. I held a belief, I guess, that I didn’t even know I held, which went something like “no matter what life has thrown at you, there is always a way to pull yourself out, to do the right thing, to rise above and not fall prey to drugs or crime. After reading The Panopticon, I have a completely different perspective on “choice” and “escape.”

While it took some getting used to the author’s written interpretation of the Scottish accent and dialect, I did find myself getting into the rhythm of it after a while, but that may have been because I had gotten wrapped up in Anais’s story. I was engaged and horrified at the same time–it was like watching a terrible accident happen in slow motion and wanting to intervene but being frozen in place. I sympathized with these kids who seemed to be past help, and I sympathized with the caregivers who still wanted to help, as well as the ones who had become jaded by the system. However, I was a bit unsatisfied with the ending, myself, as it seemed a bit of a cop out.

It almost feels wrong to say that I enjoyed this book, so I will just say that I can recommend it if you are willing to walk with Anais through some very difficult and sad circumstances. Her character is strong, the other characters are believable and loveable. The book moves along at a fast pace.

Grade: B+



The Panopticon has a lot of promise, but sadly, it does not manage to fulfill on that promise. Anais is a troubled young woman who has grown up in the system, moving from one foster situation to the next. She comforts herself by making up stories about her past and taking copious amounts of drugs, all the while worrying that The Experiment is choreographing the world around her to see how she will react. Anais is such an unreliable narrator that its hard to root for her (or, at points, even care about her).

I would liken this book to Trainspotting with an even younger cast of characters. If you find yourself having a hard time reading the dialect, trying reading it out load exactly as it’s written. I got through a few of the more difficult passages this way.

Grade: C



I was expecting a different story from reading the synopsis given by the publisher; however, what I found instead turned out to be a good story in its own sense. Getting used to the Gaelic dialect and the wandering narration of the book took most of the first chapter, but once I adapted my mind to the style the story flowed quite well. I was drawn in to the frustrations of being Anais and felt the emotions of her character. I wanted her to flourish and to overcome this harsh environment, even while watching her struggle just to survive.

Because the story is only told from Anais’ perspective many of my questions went unanswered and pieces of the story seemed to have been left open. This lack of total closure did not bother me much because I was living the tale through Anais’ eyes, though it is something that could have been written smoother. What Anais knew, I knew, and therefore what she did not know, I did not know either. This book was a great first person perspective of what living life in the system can become and how one person dealt with the events that occurred in her life. I enjoyed following Anais through this part of her life and would recommend this book to readers who like deeper, more dark emotion in their books.

Grade: A-



This book confused me. Based upon the description, I thought it was a sci fi book, a la The Hunger Games. One page in, I thought it had typos. Five pages in, I was annoyed; the narrator’s voice grated on me. Halfway through, I thought it was about the protagonist’s descent into mental illness. At the end, I was surprised; The Panopticon turned in a direction I didn’t expect and one that didn’t follow my view of the story. That being said, the main character, Anais, is compelling, and her story of violence, abandonment, and abuse is a devastating one. There’s a rhythm and energy to the book—exemplified by the friendships Anais makes with the other children and teens at the Panopticon—that propels the book forward and pushed me toward finishing. Primarily, though, it is a sad story, with many unanswered questions that left me dissatisfied. If you like books about people growing up in very difficult circumstances, a bit like The Glass Castle, this may be for you, though keep in mind it’s fiction not a memoir and has a harder edge to it.

Grade: C


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