Sunday, December 26, 2010

Matched, by Ally Condie (with brief spoilers in ROT13)

My friend Els mentioned Matched as the hip new teen dystopia on Facebook.

I was only mildly curious -- a dystopian teen romance? Again? I don't remember teen romance being the dominant plot complication when I was reading YA fiction in jr. high and high school. When I read the excerpt on my Kindle, I appreciated the fact that the Society still seemed to allow choices between being a Single, or Matched, and that even after being Matched, the marriage was not a sure thing.

I appreciated the fact that Cassia, the female lead character, does something early on that I found both wrenching and cowardly. She's also allowed to enjoy food, be angry, and a bit judgmental at times. She's also realistically short-sighted, while still being very good at her job, meaning that she has plenty of autonomy. I was a bit less impressed by both the male characters who form the other two angles in the love triangle: Xander is blonde and mostly perfect; but SPOILER BACHELOR #2, while he's of a different status according to the laws of Society, is so perfect that he's able to carefully manage the degree to which his perfection is visible.

I'm afraid that the characters do tend to feel to me like detailed calculations of People Who Live In a Perfection-Based Dystopia And Are About To Realize That It's Problematic. That's one of the major challenges of this genre, I suppose, if not THE major challenge -- you have to write characters who appear perfect enough that they're comfortable with life as it is, and thus have somewhere to go in the course of the story. I'm resistant to the idea of comparing books to other books directly -- stories are usually too different to be so easily compared. But when I tried to think about a story that had presented a family in a perfection-based dystopia well, one did immediately occur to me, and what I remembered was that the book had opened with the mother cursing, loudly enough, it's implied, to wake her sleeping children.

Of course, now that I think about it, that story is about a family who ends up on the wrong side of the dystopia immediately and knows from the start that its society is problematic, so the novel is a slightly different species than this one.

While the characters feel a bit too smooth, I have a good deal of admiration for the worldbuilding, which involves plenty of nice details, not all of which seem likely to be Key Plot Points, and some which might. There are a few different plots being woven together, and I couldn't predict throughout precisely what was going to happen next. There are almost jokes, though not quite, and I realize that this is what I'd like to see: a dystopian novel where the Big Bad Authoritarian Euthanizing Society is also capable of laughing at fart jokes. I don't think that's a contradiction in terms. I guess I have to give Condie credit, though, because she comes close. And I really did appreciate the portrait of a group of individuals slowly cracking throughout the first part of this trilogy.

In summary: you'll probably enjoy this if you a) like YA romances, b) would be interested in reading about one individual discovering that her world has more flaws than you realized, or c) like government conspiracy stories.

You probably won't enjoy it if you're hoping to be genuinely startled by anything in the plot, and are turned off by fairly traditionally gendered characters. At least, there's nothing surprising in this volume. I did start thinking right away about a couple of things that would make the story more interesting -- and whether they are entirely my own invention or subtle clues planted by the author, I don't yet know -- and I'm putting them in ROT13 for the sake of the unspoilered:

1. Rneyl ba, Xl nccrnef sbe n oevrs zbzrag gb or zber bs n cynlre/syveg guna Pnffvn unf gubhtug. Vg jbhyq or hggreyl snfpvangvat, naq ragveryl oryvrinoyr (gb zr) vs guvf jrer gehr, naq vs ur jrer gryyvat uvf fgbel gb ng yrnfg bar be gjb bgure tveyf.

2. Yvxrjvfr, jr qvfpbire rneyl ba gung Knaqre naq Xl obgu xabj rnpu bgure, nf jryy nf Pnffvn. Knaqre xrrcf na rlr ba Xl orpnhfr ur frrf uvz nf n cbgragvny eviny sbe Pnffvn'f nssrpgvba, naq urycf uvz yngre ba, nccneragyl bhg bs ybir sbe Pnffvn. V guvax vg jbhyq or zhpu zber vagrerfgvat, gubhtu, vs shgher abiryf erirnyrq gung Xl, naq abg Pnffvn, jnf gur pragre bs gur ybir gevnatyr. Ohg nf sne nf V pna gryy, guvf vfa'g n jbeyq jurer ubzbfrkhnyvgl rkvfgf, naq fvapr Pbaqvr unf n uvfgbel bs jevgvat abiryf jvgu n eryvtvbhf orag sbe gur YQF nhqvrapr, vg frrzf hayvxryl gung gung jvyy unccra.


  1. Thanks, Paige! This is pretty much what I think, too, including the spoilers.

    What was the dystopia with the cursing mom?

  2. That's William Nicholson's _The Wind Singer_, part of his Wind on Fire trilogy, which, now that I think about it, is probably what I'd identify as the best anti-perfection/dystopia trilogy that I've read, in terms of being able to convey familiar but important sentiments in new ways, turn traditional perspectives upside down, and avoid sounding too preachy. (At least, that's my read.) And interestingly, it, too, is fairly full of romance -- and yet in a way that doesn't bug me at all. You know it?