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One highly opinionated feminist YA nerd's twisted, snarky and informative journey through the genre's perils, pitfalls and sparkles.

The Orwell Project: 2 - "Matched" by Ally Condie.

Thank you to everyone who read and commented on the first Orwell Project entry, and apologies for the next part taking so long. It’s been a busy month for me due to ending university, my internship, job, numerous volunteering positions and organising my graduation (2:1 MA hons in Celtic & English literature, fuck yeah!) so reviewing had to be shelved for a while. Now that I will probably have a lot more free time on my hands as I join the ranks of unemployed humanities graduates,  this will hopefully move along a little more speedily.

Summary (taken from GoodReads): Cassia has always trusted the Society to make the right choices for her: what to read, what to watch, what to believe. So when Xander's face appears on-screen at her Matching ceremony, Cassia knows with complete certainty that he is her ideal mate... until she sees Ky Markham's face flash for an instant before the screen fades to black.

The Society tells her it's a glitch, a rare malfunction, and that she should focus on the happy life she's destined to lead with Xander. But Cassia can't stop thinking about Ky, and as they slowly fall in love, Cassia begins to doubt the Society's infallibility and is faced with an impossible choice: between Xander and Ky, between the only life she's known and a path that no one else has dared to follow.

Cover impressions: I distinctly remember reading a Publisher’s Weekly piece on the much buzzed about auction for publishers to acquire the rights to the trilogy by Condie, an author who had only previously published Mormon-centric teen fiction from much smaller publishers, and the much talked about seven figure sum the author received. Condie’s agent, Jodi Reamer, is nothing if not a savvy businesswoman. What followed after that auction were many months of hype and a not insignificant publicity campaign that, while nowhere near matching that which “Divergent” would later receive, still warranted attention and discussion. As expected, the first book in the planned trilogy went straight into the New York Times bestseller list. However, there were rumblings that the book had not sold anywhere near as well as expected, and the reviews were decidedly mixed amongst readers. With the final book in the trilogy being released in November, one can’t help but notice how little buzz there is surrounding its impending release, especially when compared to that which preceded “Insurgent”, the follow-up to “Divergent”. Having finally read “Matched”, it’s not hard to see why. I must admit that this book took a lot longer to read than it probably should have. Part of the blame for that can be directed towards myself and my schedule, but the main reason it took me so long was because I was so unbelievably bored with this book.  

Small side note: The cover is pretty but it’s yet another addition to the less than creative field of pretty skinny white girls in prom dresses that seem to have flooded the YA cover market. I find it interesting that the marketing for this book, along with several upcoming Orwell Project books, focus their attentions on the shallow and fashionable elements of the story. This dress appears in one scene and yet the marketing is all about it.

The premise for “Matched” is a familiar one, especially to those of us who have read works such as “1984” and “The Giver”. Set in an undisclosed point in the future of what I assume is America, The Society dictates every part of the lives of its citizens. They control who you marry, when and how many children you’ll have, the education you’ll receive, the job you’ll do and when you shall die. Their reasoning for doing so is based heavily on statistics that prove their decisions equal long, content and productive lives for all. The book opens on the night of the matching banquet of our 17 year old hero Cassia. Wearing one of a selected number of dresses (the admittedly gorgeous green number adorns the cover of the book), she eagerly awaits the Society’s decision as to whom she shall marry. To everyone’s surprise, she is matched with her good friend Xander. Such instances are rare as the vast majority of the Society’s citizens are matched with strangers. However, Cassia’s carefully ordered life takes an unexpected twist when, upon checking the details of her match, the file containing details of Xander shows not his face but that of another boy she knows, called Ky. Unfortunately this match cannot be since Ky is an aberration and is thus forbidden from being matched. Cassia finds herself in a state of turmoil over choosing the boy chosen for her or the forbidden mysterious stranger. If that final sentence doesn’t make you a little queasy, you’re a stronger YA reader than I.

Before I even get onto the utterly bland stupidity of the romance, the story’s central focus, I must touch on the one thing I did like about “Matched”, and that is the prose. Condie writes beautiful prose, striking a fine balance between a lyrical quality and yet remaining purposeful in her word choice. It’s tougher than it looks and I commend her for that. It works to extremely emotional effect in one particular scene with Cassia and her grandfather. However, the book fails on almost every other level, starting with the world-building.
The premise of an all controlling society is nothing new in fiction. It’s a backbone of dystopian novels and can be written in a highly effective manner. I recommend “The Giver” by Lois Lowry as a strong example, especially given that “Matched” borrows heavily from the tropes used in “The Giver”. Obviously, the Society is originally viewed as a utopia, bringing peace to its citizens, but the main problem with Condie’s Society is that it is completely toothless. Almost every character breaks some sort of rule throughout the story, be it minor or major. If this is a small sample, how does this translate to the Society as a whole? How on earth do they keep order? Given how much free will is allotted to the citizens, I remained baffled as to how they functioned. Surely if people are constantly breaking rules, and know they are doing so, then they are fully aware that their government is not utopian, therefore they become ungovernable? The Society claims to have eradicated certain illnesses, such as cancer, through the matched pairings, but while I’m no doctor, I’m not sure that’s how cancer works.

The Society has set aside 100 of each thing for the citizens to appreciate, such as 100 poems or 100 songs. How are these 100 poems decided out of the immeasurable amount of literature created over the course of thousands of years of human achievement? Let’s look at this logically (since I doubt the Society did): it would make the most sense for the Society to pick 100 American poems, given the location of the story, but which era would they choose, if any? For example, I love Edwin Morgan, and it would be tough enough to pick 100 of his poems to preserve, let alone 100 poems from every poem ever written. Would drama written in verse count? What about works translated from a foreign language? How is a poem deemed suitable? Given the often deeply confessional, political or cultural specific nature of some poets’ work, how can one be sure the poem they choose doesn’t incite some sort of revolution amongst the people? Books are burned in dystopian societies for a reason – because words are power. Some poems require a lot of research and analysis to truly appreciate the power behind them. I’m currently reading a biography of the marriage between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and it’s uncovering so many of the complexities behind each of their work that I’d never even considered before, and I consider myself a huge Plath fan in particular. This particular aspect of the story bugged me quite a bit, especially since I’ve spent hours analysing one stanza of a poem for an essay. The 100 poems choice is made all the more confusing given that the citizens are taught to read but not to write. To me, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. How is that even possible? In one supposedly touching scene of romance building, Ky teaches Cassia to write, but if she can read perfectly, as is mentioned on more than one occasion, surely she could just see the words in her head and copy them down? There is no real logic behind these decisions made by the Society. The society in “The Giver” works because they have eradicated colour and music and anything creative. Here, Cassia’s world seems utterly ridiculous in comparison. There’s no logic here at all.

Since the romantic element takes up the vast majority of the story, so it must take up the vast majority of my review, unfortunately. To put it succinctly, the romance is awful. It’s the worst of what YA romance has thrown at us over the past 5 years. Dull, insipid, poorly developed, overly reliant on “mysterious”, “brooding”, and other such descriptive words, the love triangle unfolds pretty much as you would expect. It’s the join-the-dots of YA romance, headed by an extremely annoying heroine with absolutely no concept of how basic human emotions work. It’s a very conservative romance, with a simple brushing of hands bringing about emotions in Cassia so extreme, I shudder to think how she’ll cope when she has her first orgasm (yes, I know Condie is a Mormon and that she was inspired to write “Matched” after chaperoning at a high school dance, but the book is terrible enough independent of the author, so separate my thoughts shall remain). I get the thrill of a first crush, we all do on some level, but here it is heightened to such ludicrous proportions that don’t even fit in with the society in which Cassia is living. This all controlling Society decides who you shall marry, but still allows cross-gender interaction and the odd kiss or two amongst the unmatched. Why? I refuse to believe this Society is stupid enough to assume that no child under the age of 16 has ever felt an attraction, physical or emotional, to another human being before they are matched with a spouse for life. We are supposed to believe that Cassia has never felt any attachment, romantic or otherwise, to another person, even subconsciously, before she is matched with her supposed close friend and then all of a sudden, there is a switch which changes everything. This is a world devoid of sexuality, not because the Society dictates it, but because the author has eradicated it and refuses to address it. Which brings me to a side note I must address.

Where the fuck are the gay people in dystopian fiction?

On top of believing that teenage hormones do not exist, the reader is supposed to assume that homosexuality, bisexuality, and anything remotely resembling an LGBTQ lifestyle just does not exist. The matchings exist to create content relationships and strong families, and I get that. However, there is not one single acknowledgement that LGBTQ people even exist in this Society. If Condie had taken a moment to mention that queer lifestyles were outlawed or something similar, I wouldn’t have been happy but there would have been some sort of understanding, but there’s nothing. It’s not that gay people aren’t allowed in the Society, it’s that they don’t even fucking exist, and this makes me so angry. Given the pathetically small percentage of LGBTQ representation in current young adult fiction, to have this seven figure sum selling trilogy, one that publishers fought over to buy, one that was buzzed about for almost a year prior to release, just ignore a significant portion of the population disappoints me. The characters in the book have the option to reject their match and live life as a Single (which also opens up another whole heap of plot holes) so I assume this is what LGBTQ citizens choose? If so, why does the author not acknowledge this? Are LGBTQ people not worth her time, or any dystopian author’s time? Given how much YA likes to pat itself on the back for being so diverse and supporting LGBTQ readers, seeing the most buzzed about books once again focus on the straight pretty skinny white girl in an expensive dress while entirely ignoring LGBTQ people makes me want to vomit.

Back to the romance. Ky is the one Cassia falls for (it’s the biggest shock of the year!) apparently because she’s forbidden to. They barely interact and they know next to nothing about each other, and yet we’re supposed to believe they completely adore each other and will do anything do stay together, as long as it doesn’t stop Cassia from being entirely passive as a heroine. Her supposedly close friendship with Xander is shown to be equally as poorly developed but at least they have conversations together and Xander exhibits a modicum of a personality. Ky’s entire worth as a romantic heroine seems to rest on him being mysterious and forbidding. Call me old fashioned but I’d like to get to know someone before we brush hands and declare our everlasting love. While there is a lot less of the grating angst commonly seen in YA romance when it comes to the heroine choosing between two boys, the fact that Cassia immediately seems to fall for someone she barely knows does nothing to bring me in as a reader. When it is revealed that the romance between Ky and Cassia is also a set up by the Society, for reasons too pointless and ludicrous for me to note, this has no effect on anything. Cassia barely questions her thoughts on the issue, which is odd given how preoccupied she was with the decision between her and Xander. It’s not love, it’s obsession. This forbidden romance also has absolutely no effect on the plot. About 50 pages from the end of one extremely slow read, Cassia’s family are sent to a new location and Ky is sent to another, not because of their romance but because of two entirely unrelated incidents that are barely mentioned in the novel. The entire focus of the story is completely inconsequential to the central plot. Basically, the romance is literally pointless. If that doesn’t irritate you as a reader, I don’t know what will.

This review suggests I am much angrier with this book than I actually am. Aside from the complete erasing of LGBTQ representation (and that rant could easily be applied to any number of big selling YA novels), this book mostly just bored me. It’s lifeless in almost every possible way, bland and comparable to birthday cake icing – pretty to look at but utterly lacking in anything remotely resembling substance. Where Condie’s prose shows a strong level of control over the language, the Society depicted completely lacks it. I’m struggling with a way to properly sum up “Matched” because it was so entirely pointless and forgettable, but it wasn’t atrociously bad. I found “Divergent” to be a far worse book, but there was a note of ambition behind it. “Matched” feels lazy in comparison, far more invested in an entirely inconsequential romance one can find in any number of YA books than in giving dimensions to its characters and the world they inhabit. “Matched” is solid proof that gimmicks can only take you so far in YA, and the same can be said for hype.

Big Brother’s Checklist:

·         World-building: Terrible, frivolous, completely lacking in the logic that is frequently mentioned in reference to it. I spent way more time thinking about the holes in the 100 poems scheme than I should have.
·         Strong premise: It’s a gimmick, pure and simple. A “What if…?” idea that’s good for taglines but not much else. If you’ve read “The Giver” then you may find yourself trying to figure out the percentage of that seven figure advance that Condie owes to Lois Lowry.
·         “Strong female character”: Cassia isn’t supposed to be the kickass heroine Tris was depicted as, but she is described as intelligent on more than one occasion, including by the Society, and yet she remains passive, childish and really annoying throughout.
·         Love triangle: I’m counting this as a yes because, while Cassia is very decisive in her choice between the two potential romantic interests, the reader is still subjected to far too much internal angst from Cassia on the issue.
·         Sense of threat: There isn’t one.
·         Strong villain/antagonist: The Society isn’t a strong enough threat to really register as an antagonist, nor is there another present.
·         Lack of priorities: Romance always works better as a sub-plot unless you can write the hell out of a romance. Brief hand brushing, letters on napkins and mysterious strangers just don’t cut it.
·         Overdone/unnecessary romance: Unnecessary should have been this book’s title.
·         Supporting cast: With the exception of Cassia’s grandfather, who exhibits wit and warmth in the one standout scene of the novel, the supporting cast barely registers. I was interested in learning more about the relationship between Cassia’s parents, but little time was allotted to them.
·         Deeper meaning: There doesn’t seem to be one.
·         General writing quality (pace, plotting, prose): Beautiful prose, terrible plotting, sluggish page. Half a point here.
·         Originality/execution: Read “The Giver” instead.

Bingo count: 11 ½ /12.

Next time on the Orwell Project: Kiera Cass’s “The Selection”, as possibly to be seen on the CW in the near future. I’m also looking for suggestions on how to improve the Big Brother’s checklist. Is there anything I should add or take away? Once again, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this book and others coming up in the Orwell Project, and if you can recommend a dystopian novel that actually acknowledges LGBTQ people, then you’ll get a gold star and my thanks!

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