TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
By now, you've probably heard about Ally Condie's debut teen novel, "Matched," which was published by a division of Penguin in late November 2010. "Matched" is currently listed at #3 on the New York Times list of bestselling chapter books for children, and it received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. I even saw it in my local Target store!
So is all the hype deserved? Absolutely. I first learned about "Matched" last spring at a Baker & Taylor publishing preview, and the Penguin folks graciously sent along advanced copies over the summer. Being a good librarian (ha!), I passed those copies to my teen readers, meaning I only recently got a chance to read this wonderful book for myself. Three word review: I LOVED IT!
Ok, let me explain why. "Matched" is a dystopian / romance hybrid, but it's not a "Hunger Games" trilogy clone. Yes, there's a future world in which all behavior — food intake, exercise, vocations, marriage, death — is strictly controlled by the Society, the all-powerful government that monitors and restricts life for its constituents' own safety and security. And, yes, there's a slow-brewing rebellion against the Society's power and lies, although for now it's located in the Outer Provinces, a far away, wild land. And, okay, there's a healthy love triangle here featuring main character Cassia, her childhood friend Xander, and outsider Ky. But, truly, that's where the similarities end. For instead of a bleak tale of violence and misery, we have — oddly enough! — a novel of poetry, light, buoyancy, and freedom.
A quick plot rundown is in order. 17 year old Cassia is matched by the Society with Xander, a strong, sturdy, handsome, all-around great guy. Cassia is beyond thrilled to make a lifelong match with a trusted friend she already knows. Unfortunately, through an apparent glitch in the matching technology, Cassia also briefly sees a glimpse of a second match, a neighbor who had been orphaned years earlier in the Outer Provinces and brought to live with a childless couple. Ky, she learns, is an Aberration, meaning he's something less than a full citizen. He's not even a full person in the Society's eyes. Ky spends long days toiling away in a nutrition disposal facility, and, as an Aberration, he must always remain single. Ky works hard to blend innocently into any situation at work or in the gaming center, but he's an intelligent, thoughtful guy.
On a series of state-sponsored hikes — constructive, regulated leisure time having been deemed very important by the Society — Cassia comes to discover this side of Ky. She also learns about his background and his own secret acts of rebellion. Ky teaches Cassia to write while hidden among the trees; on subsequent hikes, he gives her an outlawed compass and slowly shares his childhood story of war and death in forbidden art and words passed on scraps of napkin. When Cassia's grandfather died at age 80, as all Society residents do, he left her a hidden scroll of Dylan Thomas poetry. The words of "Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night" thus become a shared piece of hope and freedom between Cassia and Ky, something that binds them to each other and against the Society's repression. This very striving for creativity, for words and life and richness, runs counter to everything the Society teaches. And yet it feels right, especially once they fall in love, triggering a painful series of events I promise not to spoil.
There's so much more here, including fleshed out parents with their own fears, weaknesses, and acts of bravery. Cassia's folks try for stoicism and submission to the Society, but they are as conflicted as Cassia. It's so rare to see flawed yet supportive parents in any teen novel. Woot! As mentioned, there is also a beautiful exploration of the potency of words to elevate and sustain us. The Dylan Thomas poem, in particular, is expertly woven throughout the story, often tied to images of soaring and flight. So incredibly well done. I also loved how author Condie creates a drab world full of workmanlike grays and browns and then uses touches of vibrant color (nature's hues, red newroses, the Society's three prescribed pills, satin dresses at the Matched Banquet, a tiny scrap of preserved green fabric, memories of long forbidden stained glass) as a striking contrast to the Society's forced conformity. And while all the main characters are well developed, I particularly enjoyed the nuances in Xander's character; the "third wheel" role can be limiting and subject to awful stereotypes, but Xander, in both moments of frustration and incredible heroism, consistently comes across as a thoroughly real boy.
Finally, Cassia's path toward rebellion, presented in small, measured steps — including the slow unfolding of her love for Ky — is pitch perfect. I believed every second of this obedient girl's journey from compliant citizen to patient rebel. Condie masterfully chips away at the Society's exterior, carefully revealing not just a strict control of history and culture but, more ominously, forced suicide, conscription, and exile. All this is presented carefully, allowing the reader to feel like she is following a trail of clues and uncovering a mystery.
So, yeah, did I mention I loved it? This is an obvious sell to Suzanne Colllins or Lois Lowry fans, as well as poetry lovers and anyone who enjoys a compelling romance. But I think the appeal of "Matched" is even broader. My sole complaint is that I cannot wait to read the next installment, "Crossed," which doesn't come out until Fall of 2011. Gah! The reviews I've read suggest a high school reading level here, but I don't understand why. Sure, the themes are troubling, even disturbing at times, but there is literally nothing offensive here in terms of language or situations. I'd say older middle school is just fine, but see what you think. "Matched" is out now. I hope you love it as much as I did!
PS – How awesome is the cover art?