Monday, March 7, 2011

Book Review: Bumped, by Megan McCafferty

When a virus makes everyone over the age of eighteen infertile, would-be parents pay teen girls to conceive and give birth to their children, making teens the most prized members of society. Girls sport fake baby bumps and the school cafeteria stocks folic-acid-infused food.

Sixteen-year-old identical twins Melody and Harmony were separated at birth and have never met until the day Harmony shows up on Melody’s doorstep. Up to now, the twins have followed completely opposite paths. Melody has scored an enviable conception contract with a couple called the Jaydens. While they are searching for the perfect partner for Melody to bump with, she is fighting her attraction to her best friend, Zen, who is way too short for the job.

Harmony has spent her whole life in Goodside, a religious community, preparing to be a wife and mother. She believes her calling is to convince Melody that pregging for profit is a sin. But Harmony has secrets of her own that she is running from.

When Melody is finally matched with the world-famous, genetically flawless Jondoe, both girls’ lives are changed forever. A case of mistaken identity takes them on a journey neither could have ever imagined, one that makes Melody and Harmony realize they have so much more than just DNA in common.

From New York Times bestselling author Megan McCafferty comes a strikingly original look at friendship, love, and sisterhood—in a future that is eerily believable.

Apparently, the inspiration for this upcoming teen dystopia was the question "What if teenagers were the only people who could have babies?" It's an idea that has the potential to be gimmicky, but in a lot of ways, the book (first in a trilogy, I suspect) manages to dodge that bullet. It dodges it, or did for me, because McCafferty's Harmony is a pretty accurate portrayal of vociferous Christian adolescence, obsessed with using this life to prepare for the next one, and spouting an inner monologue that I believed. That makes this particular dystopia a bit different from other recent ones, like Matched, because the conflict between the two sisters' ideologies takes center stage, and the story is as much about the two struggling with each other as it is about each sister struggling with the larger societal rules and standards.

I found both Melody and Harmony believable, despite niggling annoyance with the need to saddle them with names that scream cliché -- at least the characters themselves explain that, and actually, now that I think about it, the names serve another purpose during the story. Melody is ambivalent about her position as a professional reproducer, but surrounded by friends who have different positions and views towards professional pregnancy, and McCafferty is thoughtful in her worldbuilding enough to allow the teenage mothers to take a number of different paths, most of which are acceptable, and don't lead to chilly, dystopian euthanasia, or anything like that. And the society does have certain rules that can't be broken, and when Melody's friend Malia breaks one of those laws, Melody's reaction to her is somewhere between sympathy and condemnation. It's painful to read this, but it feels true to the portrayal of someone who's been socialized to believe in a world working a particular way. Nor does the narrative linger too much on the melodrama of Malia's situation, and Melody's rejection of her.

Harmony is equally complex, ping-ponging between excitement and nervousness as she tries to keep track of her own intentions, which are by no means set in stone. There's one part of her character development that I was a little uncertain about, but it's something that confuses me when I see it in life, too -- so this just meant that I had to revisit that little pocket of mental controversy.

Since there are two female characters, there are two main male characters, both imperfect in different ways. I'm fairly certain, at the end of this volume, who's going to end up with whom, but I wasn't sure throughout, and I'm not 100% positive. Neither of the male characters is perfectly secure and knowledgeable; in other words, no danger of either becoming the enlightened source of knowledge to whom the poor, confused, stupid female characters have to run to.

I wish we'd seen more of the world outside the lives of the two protagonists. McCafferty makes the vocabulary of pregnancy part of the worldbuilding: terminate, fertilicious, barren -- all are ubiquitous in everyday conversation, with slightly tweaked meanings from their usage now (well, not fertilicious!). And we see how pregnancy affects the already complex social networks of teenage girls and boys, and how the Facebooking of the world has advanced further and further. But I did find myself wanting to know more. According to the book, the spread of the disease causing infertility by age 18 had become evident four years earlier. Having the culture of teen pregnancy develop so quickly seems a little fast, but that's partly because I don't know how else the world was different prior to the discovery. There's no mention at all of STDs, which I was willing to accept, and suspend disbelief for, but which strikes me as a bit handwavy. There's no mention of homosexuality, which seems like it ought to still exist.

As you can see, I'm not without quibbles. That said, was it a dystopia that made me think? Yes. Did it dodge stale gender characterizations? Absolutely. Am I curious about what will happen in future volumes? Without a doubt.

On a score of 1 to 10, this gets an 8. Bumped at Amazon.


  1. One would think that eventually the culture would change to enable people raise their own children. People would just start living their lives in a different order, planning to have children young and then going on to education and work. You'd need extended family, and grandparents and even great-grands would have to take a major role in supporting young parents. That may be why the story needed the disease to have only been around for a short time, so there could be a group of "older" people (in their 20s and 30s) who'd had no opportunity to have children and would be willing to pay.

  2. That makes a lot of sense, actually, and I almost think it makes me like the story more, because I like the idea of a temporary dystopia -- though I'm not quite sure that's what the author had in mind. But maybe it is.

  3. For some reason this reminds me of a conversation I had with my editor, just this morning, about the anatomy of dragon eyeballs. The WEIRDEST considerations come up when you're writing SF/F.