Uglies by Scott Westerfield
Scholastic Press, 2005.
paperback, 448 pages. borrowed.
There is, very probably a canon of Young Adult reads. The sort of collection where if you want to be taken seriously as a reader of YA you must have read certain authors and titles. Scott Westerfield’s Uglies series is on it—as it should be. I have heard it referenced often, and thanks to Natalya who brought it home from school on Friday, I finally made the excuse to read book one: Uglies.
This is where I admit to disliking the titles in this series (Uglies, Pretties, and Specials) and their continual use throughout the novel. I also admit to loathing the ridiculous name of that section of the city called Pretty Town. Why? I feel immediately sucked into that hideous simpering hole that is the cliché of prissy female adolescence. Westerfield is a genius.*
In this future-scape, Tally is only a few short months away from a full-body-altering surgery that will make her “pretty”—and she needs to be pretty. Her best friend Peris (such an unfortunate spelling for the male) has had his surgery and is already in Pretty Town where life is just one party after another, to say nothing of the social ramifications of left being Ugly. All she has to do is behave and wait it out until she turns 16, too. But Tally makes a new friend, Shay, who despite their being the very same age has different views about the impending change—in fact, Shay is going to run away to where other rebels have fled, to live in the wilderness. This shouldn’t have affected Tally except she is the only one who knows where Shay went and the government wants Tally to find that settlement. Tally has to betray her friend or risk never becoming “pretty” and lose everything.
Tally has to follow clues in order to find the settlement and she is daring and resourceful if nothing else. She is also able to grasp the full scope of what is going on as the Utopic shine begins to tarnish and the truth behind all those Pretty faces is revealed. But the homespun wilds is no cake walk either. Growing up, peeking behind the veil of propaganda or idealism, it seems, is serious business, people. It is a testament to Westerfield’s ability that he can draw characters who have their moments of wisdom as well as absolute foolishness—characters who can be neither likeable or heinous.
Westerfield writes great action and adventure and any romance serves to develop the characters further and melds seamlessly into the turn in the plot. However, the question at the center of Tally’s adventure remains throughout: which promises will she keep and whom will she betray? Her own interest rarely figures in after the first—after we come to understand how being Ugly versus Pretty figures in. And even then, Westerfield paces the world-building, using the initially narrow scope of our first person narrative as an excuse to tease out new and enlightening perspectives as the character learns more and more about the society/world about her.
Needless to say, there is a lot of criticism regarding appearance, conformity, stereotyping and there is a healthy dose of eco-criticism as well. Westerfield creates a sensical Utopia, taking the reverse of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron and prettying everyone up rather than catering to the lowest denominator. While it may not seem fair from the first, it doesn’t seem wholly unreasonable, feeding into our own contemporary “understandings” about social and biological interaction. Tally is a good average adolescent, a reliable avatar. Passive and typical until she becomes more willingly decisive and singular as Westfield slowly introduces complications until he ups the ante irreparably. He turns the pages and it would do to have book two (Pretties) on hand.
recommendations: 12 -17 (middle school-12th); anyone human; those interested in sci-fi, dystopia, and/or action/adventure; social and/or ecological critique done in a surprisingly non-heavy-handed way considering how it dominates the story.
*although “genius” in this way may not have been intentional.