I've been hooked on books since childhood, and still am. I usually have at least three books going at any given time. After nearly two decades teaching middle school, I've developed strong opinions about YA fiction. A married mother of many adult children, and a practicing Catholic, my moral paradigms do play into my reviews.
Matched, first in the Matched trilogy by Ally Condie
In Cassia's world, everything you need is already decided for you by Society, in order to give you the safest, longest, healthiest, most peaceful life you can possibly have. No need for you to make any choices at all. Society will choose for you. Your mate, your job, your home, what art to view, what poems to read, what free time activities to participate in, what foods to eat, even what questions to ask, it's all taken care of for you. Any attempt to step outside of the boundaries placed on you (for your own good, of course) results in serious reprisals.
Sort of a grown up version of the classic children's novel, The Giver by Lois Lowry, this book asks many of the same questions. At the start of the book, our heroine Cassia is a willing and happy participant in this Society. But as she gradually wakes up from her acceptance of this choice-less life, things get complicated. Are her parents truly happy? Does Society really know what is best for her? Why has she begun to develop feelings for a young man who is NOT going to be her mate in life?
Way better than a lot of what passes for YA fiction, largely due to two factors: realistically gradual paradigm shifts, and solidly strong writing. I love dystopian fiction in general because it allows us to ask hard questions: the one this book asks is an age-old one, well worth discussing late into the night over brandy or beers: Is safety and security worth giving up your freedom for? And if so, how much freedom, for how much security? It's the story of human history, the attempt to balance personal freedom against the common good. Sometimes we err on the side of freedom, sometimes we err on the side of order: but the balancing act goes on.
I appreciated the methodical (in the best sense, not in the sense of plodding) development of Cassia's very gradual intellectual awakening. From the start of the book to the end, she changes utterly, but none of it happens overnight. Often in YA fiction, the hero or heroine sees or hears one thing and suddenly their whole personality is altered, and EVERYTHING changes..... which irritates the bejezus out of me. People don't behave that way in real life.
This novel handles her transformation FAR more deftly and realistically. Cassia is given one piece of information, which causes her to question some things, but her behavior does NOT change, and her allegiance to her Society and its methods don't instantly crumble. She then learns another thing, and thinks of more questions, but again, continues to exist as she has before, while her internal monologue slowly alters. THIS is how things really usually happen, and the author captured that gradual life-shift so very very well. This is true both in the way Cassia views her Society and in the romantic love interest department.
Speaking of love interest, wouldn't it be wonderful to have just one popular YA novel WITHOUT a freaking love triangle? Sigh. That said, at least this one is not your normal absurd love triangle. There's Xander, the boy she grew up with and loves like a BFF, and with whom she is "Matched" by Society. Then there's Ky, the Aberrant boy who can never be matched with anyone, but with whom she gradually (there's that lovely word again) develops a relationship, which in turns gradually grows into a romance. The boys do not get into some ridiculous show down over who "gets" to get the girl, and she does not pit them against each other: in fact, she shows a tender concern for the feelings of both young men, and struggles to discern what she ought to do. She shows honesty and she wants to treat them both as real human beings, with dignity and value, and she wants to be true. How can you not like that?
Several other things I liked very much about this book:
1. The forbidden poetry. In this dystopia, to "eliminate clutter", only 100 poems, "the very best", have been allowed to survive. (Also only 100 paintings and 100 pieces of music.... my heart is broken just pondering this) All copies of others have been destroyed... but Cassia accidentally finds a lost poem....and it tugs at her heart. Her relationship with Ky begins to grow around their sharing of forbidden poetry. The way that poetry in this world is literally a commodity, worth trading on an actual black market, delighted me. That said, I should reveal that I am a literature teacher, so of course I would find the idea of Dylan Thomas' masterpiece "Do not go gentle into that good night" being more valuable than, say, gold, very very appealing.
2. Grandpa. I love the scenes with Grandpa before he dies. His way of saying more than he is saying. His refusal to play on Society's terms. I love the wayCassia remembers him after, and the effect he has on her choices. I love the compact, with its beautiful secret. I love the way his memory drives her. I love his fieriness.
3. Subtlety. This book is rife with it. I know some reviewers have said that makes it slow or boring: I think it makes it delicious and far more fun to read than more obvious, vulgar YA fiction that gives you all the secrets and answers right up front. You get hints here.... but not the full picture. As the book develops, it becomes clear that Society might not be as stable as they proclaim.... but you are not told that up front in chapter one, or in fact ever told it overtly anywhere. It comes in delicate bits of information, gleaned as you go. I deeply appreciate this more mature kind of writing. I can hardly wait to read the sequel.
4. Its lack of violence. I know, I know, some people found this book "boring". But I am relieved to find a dystopian fiction novel for youth that does not feature wholesale human slaughter. While I enjoyed the Hunger Games immensely and like the book Divergent, I was often distressed by the bloody mess going on almost constantly. This book is calmer, quieter, and in some ways made far more sinister by the very lack of violence.
I liked Matched well enough that upon finishing it, I immediately went online and ordered the complete trilogy for my classroom. But I will read the sequels first.:>)
One complaint: the cover. I hate it. No boy in my classroom would be caught dead with a book with this cover on it.