***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: a bloated Feed wanna-be that's not half as successful at satire as its idol, veers away from the mission of attacking unhealthy societal norms in favor of political commentary, and has schlocky world-building.
It's discouraging to see books like this hit it so big. Seriously, two hundred fifty thousand ratings on goodreads and a movie deal? Westerfeld's prose is clunky in places (if I never see the word "purchase" again it will be too soon) and sometimes pedestrian in others, but much of his writing clearly shows that he's capable of better stuff. Maybe I need to read Leviathan. But for Uglies, I'm going to have to grade this man down for not trying--for not using his talents to the utmost. This is a quick and dirty stab at a bestseller, and--confound you, reading masses!--it has become exactly that.
Lost satire. Occasionally books have premises that are far fetched, but the parable is so compelling and the characters so real, you just go with the flow. I thought Beauty Queens was a pretty good example of that. With Uglies, well, obviously, there will never be a medical technology that can cosmetically change--in one operation and with no recovery time (other than the feeling of a "bad sunburn")--a person's bone structure, body shape, height, and features to make them a statistically determined version of "pretty." It's so exaggerated it begs the reader to think of it as satire, and I was fully prepared for that--eager, even. But like Delirium, this book took itself so darned seriously, the potential magic was ruined. Uglies veers off into political commentary, environmentalism, and a love triangle with a side dose of YA female jealousy--subjects that are dull, dull, dull, oversimplified, and overdone. I'm also inadvertently saturating myself lately with dystopias in which the solution to the evils of the city is escape to the somehow lightly-inhabited, semi-socialist, self-sufficently-homesteading wilds of nature. And how flimsy is it, how unrealistic is it, how pandering is it to readers and librarians when dystopias have the evil government actively destroy all books from the previous "bad" generations? Is that likely, when information and knowledge are power? I'm going to re-title this book Why Future Generations Hate Us by Scott Westerfeld.
Her Fine Eyes goes full bore. Wow, this review is not like me at all. I'm not sure why I had such a visceral response to the book after I put it down. While I was reading, I had a few eye rolls, but I was content to plug along. For instance, I knew there wouldn't be much tension if Tally was mature and simply told the people in the Smoke why she had been sent there after she realized that it felt like "home" to her. But later I became annoyed at how often she thought about telling someone, only to talk herself out of it with a lame or dated excuse; bringing it up repeatedly didn't help the plot along at all and began to feel like Westerfeld trying to justify why he wasn't having Tally do the sensible thing. (Given the Smokey knowledge of the city's bugging practices, it was clear from the get-go that they would have known what to do with her pendant-communicator, rather than throw it into a fire.) This sort of fruitless internal agonizing padded a book that's already too long at 450 pages. Another example: while I was reading, I talked myself into not being disappointed by Tally's shallow attitude about New Pretty Town--she's only sixteen, after all, and has been raised to think it's the best party ever--but afterward I was annoyed that she mulled over serious considerations in her head--Peris's change in personality, the physical violence of the operation--and was still resolute that superficial beauty was valuable. She still felt drawn to Shay's beauty, voicing a sort of "fall into their eyes" admiration, even knowing that Shay's vital, free-thinking personality had been destroyed.
The message of beauty. This is already a hobby horse of mine (see the rant in my review of Siege and Storm). In other YA novels I haven't appreciated the way main characters are unnecessarily described as "beautiful" when it's not a trait (or of course skill) they need to achieve their goals. Often it's even more insidious than that: beauty is there to make us like the character more (especially if she doesn't know she's pretty...look, she's pretty and humble!). Including beauty unnecessarily in YA literature reinforces all of the societal norms that we should be fighting against--that the "good" character is the pretty one, that beauty is earned. So...you'd think that Uglies strives for the opposite message, that it's here to pillory that trope--right?--but secretly, it's not. The sheer number of times that people are positively described as beautiful in this book destroys the message. For instance, Tally describes ugly features, and unfortunately they're features our beauty culture also labels as less than perfect: her own close-set eyes, her frizzy hair, David's big nose. How much more powerful would it have been if we could see through Tally's descriptions of "pretty" and "ugly" that it's her view of beauty that's actually twisted? Also the author implies--and apparently not ironically--that anorexia nervosa is caused by trying to be beautiful, and that if beauty were uniform no one would starve themselves. FAIL. (If Westerfeld was trying to make this a false understanding in Pretty society, he would have had Tally or another character aware of Pretties who still starved themselves.)
Why did Tally stay in the Smoke? Her motivation to go there was crystal clear: she wanted the operation and the Specials would not allow it until she turned Shay in. Thus Westerfeld makes Tally neither a rebel nor a typical Pretty "sheep," which is great--gray decision-making is realistic in a character. But she never really settled in her growth as a character until the very last pages of the book (really, when she finally confesses), and it would have been better if her character change had been more gradual. When the Specials are interrogating her, she protects Shay's secret simply because of a promise to Shay, showing seeds of honor, despite believing the party line. That's good. Then, she's willing to toss that promise away as soon as she remembers that her promise to Peris might supersede it--excellent, that's the "gray" we're talking about. But then she stays in the Smoke without activating the pendant because she's mildly enjoying the outdoor exertion of work and the company of the Smokeys, and for chapters and chapters she fails to tie that new feeling of connection to what her decision should be. There's no introspection on the meaning of life other than "I have to hide from David the fact that I came here to betray Shay and the Smoke." But shouldn't that be what her growth is about? Making that connection?
David fell in love with Tally for no reason. Ironically it's Dr. Cable who sees Tally the way I see her..."preservation being your one skill." David, on the other hand, thinks she's "serious," where other kids who run away usually aren't. Hmm. I know we were supposed to think he was mistaking her reservation and guilt about what she was doing in the Smoke as "serious," but it was unbelievable given the specific interactions they had. In particular, she shows an alarming attachment to the Pretty life that should have raised red flags for someone other than Croy. The only thing Tally does that's "different" from the others is get to the Smoke on her own--which should have added to the red flags, because of the likelihood that she was helped there--and question David's order to clear-cut the trees around the ruined train tracks.
Which brings me to...ruins. This history is three-hundred years after the Rusties disappeared. Train tracks would be rusted away completely in damp environments (railroad ties would have disintegrated in a matter of decades), and buried by the action of soil deposition. And don't get me started on how we, the readers, are Rusties, and this is supposed to make us realize how horrible we are, and what future generations will think of us. Sledge hammer, much?
The world-building was lax. First of all, this is a non-sustainable socio-economic model: young adults are pure consumers, living in luxury and partying all the time. Middle Pretties actually do the work, while Late Pretties and Crumblies are retired. The whole economic structure is a waving of hands. How does the city support itself without trade? Westerfeld tells us that everything is "recycled," and there are solar cells charging everything. But where is manufacturing? We only know that unmanned trucks deliver goods from the outlying factories to the city. But where do the raw resources come from for the factories, given that anything outside of the city is the abandoned, wild west? Where is the agriculture? They're not eating Soylent Green, after all.
Political correctness. The plot becomes chock full of politically-correct lessons that veer away from the issue of social norms of beauty. We should have had a satire about the culture of beauty, with the biting commentary that if you choose to follow that culture, you're brain dead (literally, in the case of New Pretty Town). We should have had the theme of struggling with selfish, superficial teenage ideals, and the notion of betraying others to satisfy your own desires. What we got was: an environmental message about introducing non-native species infestations (via the orchids); commentary on our own silly dependence on oil via the Rusties; lectures about war; and a typical, boring love triangle, complete with angsty jealousy.
Additional points subtracted for:
1. Tally and other Uglies watching old movies, but not knowing what trains are.
2. David and his parents trusting a perfect-stranger (Tally) with sensitive information (the brain damage part of the operation)--even though they haven't told anyone else before, in two decades of living in the Smoke. P.S. David is perfectly aware that Tally still admires the Pretty life.
3. The fact that when Westerfeld needs to use it, the same sensitive information is apparently not all that sensitive after all, as David's mom, Maddy, tells it to every wayward Ugly who visits the Rusty Ruins.
4. The author implying that anorexia nervosa is caused by trying to be beautiful, and that if beauty were uniform no one would starve themselves. Yes, this appears twice in my review because it's so medically egregious.
Was there anything I liked?