Matched (by Ally Condie)

10 08 2011

With so many YA authors fishing in the same Dystopia-pond, it’s hardly surprising that a book that makes a cocktail of seemingly all of the most prevalent elements of the genre would be hardly original, yet be a best-seller at the same time.  Because face it, even though Matched might not really be a big struggle to read, it is hardly an innovative book. That said, the strength of a book does not necessarily have to lie in its originality[1], which begs the question: is the mix we get in Matched a successful one? The cat starts out on the fence on this one, so let’s see if the good outweighs the err..borrowed.

The dystopia-trend is everywhere in YA-land these days[2]: The Hunger Games, the Uglies series,  Delirium, The Maze Runner, …  Most of these books show a very Orwellian society in which the citizens’ choices are in some way restricted. Their day-to-day life is monitored and their decisions are mostly made for them. As a result you often get a complacent, numb and dumbed-down populace, and any spark of rebellion is quickly nipped in the bud by The Powers That Be. In these books the lifestyle that is forced onto the population gets challenged by the protagonist of the book (a teenager), either through an internal or an external factor.  While in Adult Dystopia LitLand the accent is often on the grimness itself of such a society or on how such a structured world is constrictive for individuality as a concept, YA fiction about this topic very often approaches this from either the love angle or the coming-of-age angle. Enter the spin-off of dystopian romance. So far there is nothing unusual or special about Ally Condie’s Matched: Orwellian Society? Check! Teen protagonist challenging the Officials! Check! Love interest as cause of the divide? Check!

So how exactly do you make your book stand out from the crowd? It’s not with the broad strokes of your novel and its themes, apparently. It has to be something in the details that sets your apart.

Let’s first focus on the description of this Big Brother society. Ally Condie really takes her time sketching the type of Society that’s in place for Cassia (our main character), but to be fair to her, the slow and careful build-up adds to the believability of it all. In Matched Society decides where you work, based on predetermined probability of where and how you will perform best. This is done by sorting people into categories, something which Cassia seems to have a natural aptitude for. Society decides who you will be Matched with (who you will marry). Society decides how many children you will have. Society decides when you will die (at the age of 80 apparently, midnight on the dot to be more precise). In this Society, art, music etc. has been reduced to 100 Poems, 100 Paintings, 100 Songs, etc. It was the enormous flow of information and input that led the old society to partly destroy itself, so choice has been restricted on every level of human life. Interesting detail: people no longer cook for themselves. Their meals are delivered to them at a specific time each day and they get just enough calorie-intake to make them the most efficient citizens possible.

Does all of this sound familiar to you? Because it should… A highly structured and controlling Society/Community where people are sorted according to ability so you are told where to work? A Society/Community that decides who you will marry, that you will have 2 children (one male and one female). The little pills that are there for emergencies? The fact you can’t have any personal artifacts/possessions because it would interfere with the Sameness that the Society/Community aspires to. A fixed set of clothes too, adapted to the situation you are in? All of these elements are echoes (and not even vague ones at that) of Lois Lowry’s The Giver.

As for the love angle of the book, maybe there will be a spark of freshness here… Cassia looks forward to her Matching Banquet, and she’s even more excited when her Match turns out to be her best friend Xander. However, that excitement first turns into surprise, then to interest and then to puppy-love when she does not see Xander’s face on her micro-card, but Ky Markham’s, one of her neighbours and an Aberration at that!  So, in with the love triangle ::sigh::… Never mind that the love story here is possibly even more chaste than in Twilight[3]. Romance in YA fiction does not have to be all hot’n’steamy, of course.  But the cat’s point is that the action and appeal of the book surely cannot lie in the romance aspect of this book. Moreover, the whole ‘I’m caught between my best friend and this new love interest’ feels very Gale-Katniss-Peeta-esque to the cat. And the love-triangle thing was the least interesting part of The Hunger Games.

If you strip away all the derivative elements of this book, the cat has got to wonder whether there is really anything left at the heart of this novel, like say an interesting, passionate, fiery character? Katniss in The Hunger Games definitely was the girl on fire. To be honest, Cassia is a fairly bland character, who talks about being angry, and the fire in the story seems to come from her grandfather (who tells her it’s OK to wonder before he kicks the bucket and will be heard of no more in the other 2 books, I’m sure) and Ky – who teaches her how to write and all things poetic, and who’s shipped off to the Outer Provinces.  So maybe we have yet to see fiery Cassia as she goes and looks for Ky in the other 2 books? A cat can hope, of course.

Ally Condie does take her time to build up her story around Cassia and she does so with flowing effortless prose. The cat will give her that. She doesn’t go for the quick thrill – another thing Matched has in common with Twilight – not with the events of the story and not with the actions of her main characters. Except for the last 50 or so pages, Matched as a whole felt like an introductory novel (of a trilogy), in other words: not a lot of action, lots of descriptions about what Cassia thinks, how she sees Ky, etc. Surprisingly, not really a lot is known yet about how this Society came to exist in the first place.  Maybe that too is reserved for the next book? A cat can wonder, right?

Telling an unoriginal story the cat can forgive. Some might say there are no more original stories. If you haven’t read either The Hunger Games (which in itself was also inspired by Battle Royale) or The Giver, then Matched might very well be an interesting and enjoyable book. Words come easy to Ally Condie. The target audience here is the Twihard population, so chances they have read The Giver are slim (they will probably have read The Hunger Games, though…).

However, the cat cannot forgive that you don’t even acknowledge the fact that you were inspired by other books with similar themes and/or characters.  Ally Condie introduces Cassia’s story in the beginning of the book and there’s an interview with her at the end of the book. If there was ever a time and place to acknowledge your influences, it’s there. The cat can only hope that a teen reading Matched will be wise enough to go and look for other stories one day, and then that teen will suddenly stumble upon one of Ally Condie’s inspirations.  Matched – just like Twilight – is the type of book that gets teens to read, and for that reason (and that reason alone), this book deserves a pass, albeit a slight one.

[1] How many ‘original’ stories are there truly? There’s boy/girl meets boy/girl. There’s boy/girl meets world. There’s…what else? I mean, Shakespeare borrowed too, right? And some say he’s the greatest.

[2] Sadly one of the reasons why certain people call it dark and despicable.

[3] Romance more chaste (superficially so, in any case) than Twilight is possible it seems.  Then again, it shouldn’t come as a surprise considering the two writers share a Latter Day Saints-connection.



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