Monday, November 14, 2011

Review: "Matched" by Ally Condie

Cassia has always trusted the Society to make the right choices for her: what to read, what to watch, what to believe. So when Xander's face appears on-screen at her Matching ceremony, Cassia knows with complete certainty that he is her ideal mate . . . until she sees Ky Markham's face flash for an instant before the screen fades to black.

The Society tells her it's a glitch, a rare malfunction, and that she should focus on the happy life she's destined to lead with Xander. But Cassia can't stop thinking about Ky, and as they slowly fall in love, Cassia begins to doubt the Society's infallibility and is faced with an impossible choice: between Xander and Ky, between the only life she's known and a path that no one else has dared to follow.

 I'm still slowly but surely moving my reviews from Amazon to the blog. I should've moved this before I posted the Crossed review, but I got excited about Crossed and totally forgot I didn't have Matched reviewed here yet...
So.... I think I've got a simple way for readers to tell if this is a book they're likely to enjoy:
What is your reaction to the following?
"My birthday began with the water-
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
Above the farms and the white horses
And I rose
In rainy autumn
And walked abroad in a shower of all my days."
If you finished this excerpt from Dylan Thomas' Poem in October (which plays a beautiful part in a critical scene in the novel) thinking, "WHAT?" or "That's dumb!" you might not want to read this novel.
But if you're a proud word-nerd like me, a fan of poetry, or someone who believes that the written word is powerful and matters, then there's a pretty good chance you'll love Matched. It's a novel that believes the things we create (including books and poetry) can change not only individuals, but entire societies.
Matched is a dystopian YA novel with romance at its heart, but don't imagine The Hunger Games with a few rhyming verses here and there. This future Society is peaceful, orderly, efficient, clean, and well-controlled. It's the controlled part that becomes a problem for Cassia Reyes.
At first, she never questions the Society's tight grip on the lives of its citizens. It tells them where to live and work, who they will marry and when, and even when they will die. Whereas other dystopian imaginings of government control run amok often have overtly evil officials, the Society in Matched wants its citizens to feel safe, content, and live in equality...supposedly. Everything is technologically advanced, with a computer system monitoring the citizens' food intake, exercise habits, even their dreams, all for the "good" of the people. Most never ask what price they're paying--the loss of privacy and freedom-- for their shiny, clean, homogenized world. The powers that be also kept only the "best" 100 examples of every art form from the past. So there are only 100 approved books, 100 poems, 100 paintings, 100 songs, no one would waste their time on inferior art and be overwhelmed with choices. (I'm curious about what some of those pieces of art are, although I know this isn't really relevant to the story.)

Nearly everyone in the Society is Matched sometime during their seventeenth year with their future marriage partner. When Cassia is Matched with her lifelong best guy friend, Xander, it seems perfect until she tries to view the microchip that contains more information about their Match. The face of another guy flashes on the screen for an instant. It's Ky Markham, who is one big mystery wrapped in an enigma, and of course, Cassia is curious. (You've got to love a guy with secrets, right?)Between this apparent glitch in the normally flawless running of the Society and Cassia's grandfather smuggling her a secret message on his deathbed, Cassia starts to question whether having everything neat and tidy is really worth giving up having a say in her own life.

At first, I was struck by how bland both Cassia and the writing from her POV were. My advice is to give the book time. As I read on, I decided this was the author's way of showing us how the boring, well-regulated, conformist life Cassia leads has tamped down her own personality. As the book progresses, Cassia's voice changes and becomes more defiant and passionate as she falls for Ky and challenges the rules of her world. Ky and Cassia grow closer as he teaches her to write. (People in the Society only type, but Ky is from the Outer Provinces and has brought with him the forbidden knowledge of cursive writing, a lost art for Cassia's people. Ms. Condie is a former teacher who probably spent a lot of time trying to decipherable chicken scratch writing, I'm guessing!)

The setting isn't terribly far in the future, but somehow "the Warming" and an overabundance of technology and too much choice in general have led the government to take control of its citizenry and run their lives for them. But we never really get a firm sense of why and how such a drastic government takeover was implemented (apparently without violence, or why entire society went along with it.

I'd also like more character description. And I would've liked a little action and a bit more of a feeling of dread and suspense as Cassia realizes just how trapped she really is in her glass bubble. (The cover art is so gorgeous and interprets the theme of the book beautifully.)
Matched raises lots of interesting questions about how each of us handle rules we know are unfair, how our relationships function within the boundaries of society, and what happens not only to us but to those we love when we cross those lines.

One final thought: I like that the romance in this book developed gradually. It didn't feel rushed like so many other YA romances. They didn't see each other, and in the next chapter swear undying devotion after one brief conversation. Also, it was very chaste and sweet. Almost unrealistically so, (I mean, these are teenagers here!) but I actually prefer that kind of romance. If you like your teen romance on the racy side, well... move along, nothing to see here!

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