"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Monday, November 25, 2013

Review: Matched trilogy

It's been a while since I blogged, but in between starting a new job, gearing up for the holidays, and adjusting to life after school and back in the US, I have actually managed to keep reading. After a few random 'literary' novels, I was craving some easy, plot-driven books that wouldn't be total drivel.

YA dystopias fit those conditions perfectly. I love dystopia because it involves imagined worlds but still makes you think about the real world. And although Ally Condie does a little too much telling and uses quite a few too many symbols and metaphors, the Matched trilogy definitely made me think.

First, these books made me think about myself. The first book introduces us to the Society. It's important that it's written with a capital 'S' because a lot of things in this book are identified by normal nouns turned into proper nouns by a capital letter. That's because there are no multiples or options or choices in this world. There is one government, one country, and one right answer to every question. Each person is matched with their one perfect 'match' and one perfect job. They have one set of clothes. And they act as one, all obeying the same laws. (There is also, we learn, one rebellion trying to take down the Society, but even it is called the Rising, a foreshadowing of the fact that it turns out to be hard to distinguish from the system it's trying to replace.)

I found this world-concept especially interesting because one of the things I dislike most about contemporary society, especially in the US, is the excess of choice it offers its citizens. All you have to do is go to Bed, Bath & Beyond and try to pick a new set of bathroom towels to understand what I mean. There are so many variables and options for everything we buy - do you want organic or conventional, non-fat, low-fat, or whole milk? While shopping for apples this week, I must have been offered at least 20 varieties of just that fruit. Personally, this stresses me out, and as I read about Cassia Reyes, Condie's heroine, I had just a twinge of jealousy because she didn't have to make those ridiculous choices all throughout her daily life. Condie really succeeded in imagining a future world that seems to have solved a problem our society actually suffers from - only they took the solution too far.

It's not just Cassia's meals and clothes that are determined for her. She also gets no choice in the person she'll spend her life with, the job she'll spend her life doing, and the city she'll spend her life in. Luckily for her, she gets matched with her best friend, Xander. Unluckily, she is mistakenly matched with a second boy as well: her other friend, Ky. And so Condie has a perfect little set up to explore the concept of a character who has to learn what it means to choose between two options and, later, how to create her own ideas and her own future outside of the options presented to her.

The first book, Matched, starts out looking like a pretty conventional teen love triangle. But as the series develops, the initial set-up of Cassia being torn between Xander and Ky gets woven into a much bigger story about her relationship to society, not just to a couple of boys.

Again, this all felt so familiar. Beyond over-stuffed supermarket shelves, the US (foremost among rich nations) pretends to offer its citizens unlimited possibilities in what kind of life they can lead. Supposedly, anyone, myself included, could become president someday. That's not strictly true, of course - there's a lot of inequality and a lot of glass ceilings still around. But this book responds in interesting ways to that American Dream. In a lot of ways, Condie's message is very traditionally American: she celebrates the moments when Cassia breaks away from the Society by running away into untamed nature or expressing herself through her own poetry, music, and dance. There's even a refrain throughout the books, referring to the anonymity of the leader of the Rising: Anyone could be the Pilot. This sounds a lot like saying, Anyone could be president of the United States.

But in the end, Cassia returns to civilization to help build a better society having learned that there are no easy choices, and possibilities are not unlimited in any part of life. She can't choose both Xander and Ky, or both the Society and the Rising. She can't live in both her home town and the wild canyons she discovers in Crossed and comes to love. She can't divide herself when some of her friends choose to leave for unknown lands while some decide to stay and rebuild. Choice is good, but choice is also hard.

I don't recommend these books based on the writing style or the psychological depth of the characters, who are lovable and relatable but also fairly simple. This book adheres to the (I think absurd) rule in YA that psychological depth and elegant, show-not-tell writing be banished along with violence and sex.

But despite its flaws, this trilogy was a very good read. I wanted to find out what happened to the characters, and the books delivered the plot at a great pace, not too fast and not too slow, just enough to keep me desperately turning the pages. And when I stopped turning those pages and headed to work or went to make another cup of tea, I wasn't just thinking about who Cassia would end up with at the end of the third book. I also found myself thinking about my own life and my own choices - engaging in just the kind of reflection that dystopian fiction is supposed to inspire.

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