Uglies by Scott Westerfield – 2 out of 5 stars
Uglies is the first in a series of YA dystopian novels, aimed more at the younger end of the YA market. In the opening novel, we meet Tally, a girl 3 months and 2 days from her 16th birthday. The date is significant because it marks the boundary between her current state as an “Ugly” – stuck in an ersatz half life and her transformation into a “Pretty”, which comes with access to the lifestyle she’s always dreamed of.
After an ill-fated trip to visit a friend who was transformed into a Pretty before her, Tally meets Shay. At first glance, the pair are kindred spirits. But as they grow closer, Shay leads Tally to question everything she’s ever known about her world and her place in it.
The good bits
One of the things I liked about the story was the way it questions our need to constantly remake ourselves and the world around us in efforts towards improvement. Should we always be trying to improve things, or should we stick to the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”? And who gets to decide what “improved” means? There’s an interesting examination of how values change or are maintained, by individuals and society. I think this is especially well suited to a teen book like this, as even if you dye your hair to hide the grey rather than to rebel, we can all still remember that fierce need to be different but still fit in with our peers that we felt at that age.
You do get the feeling that Scott Westerfield knows his audience quite well, as some of the teen-adult exchanges in the book are hilarious and very realistic, in my opinion, as are the views of adults through a teenager’s eyes:
…here was the wrinkled, veined, discolored, shuffling, horrific truth, right before her eyes…
“That poor man…”
“The Boss? Pretty wild, huh? He’s, like, forty!”
That realism also comes through in some of the lifestyle descriptions – especially when Tally goes “off-grid”. The temptation there must have been to paint a pastoral paradise to compete with the “Future = Better” meme. To Westerfield’s credit, he paints a truly warts and all picture complete with splinters, blisters and other discomforts. But he does it in a way that shows it should still be considered a credible lifestyle choice.
The bad bits
Unfortunately, there are some problems with this book that make it tricky to recommend wholeheartedly.
Tally is very naive, even for a 15 year old. There are parts where I found myself almost shouting out loud “How can you not see this coming?” This isn’t a subtle book – the plot twists are very well signposted, so they don’t really come as a shock. In keeping with the lack of subtlety, the villains are pretty one-dimensional cardboard cut outs.
Despite the realism in parts of the dialogue and in the scenic descriptions, the relationship between the main characters seems contrived and stilted. There is a bit of relationship building, more so between Tally and Shay than the others, but this is very uneven and comes across as downright implausible in parts.
My biggest disappointment was reserved for the ending though. I know this is the first part of a series, but there is no real sense of conclusion at all. It practically stops mid sentence, leaving me feeling really cross that I have invested 440-odd pages to be left hanging. I realise that the idea is to get you to hurry to buy the next book, but it feels so cynical that I can’t help feeling tempted to not read the sequel on principle. It is unfair to offer readers a book that doesn’t work as a standalone novel, in my opinion.
Not a bad introduction to dystopic fiction for the tween to early YA reader, but it lacks the depth and complexity to hold older readers’ interest. And the lack of a proper ending really does spoil it, I’m afraid.