Monday, January 21, 2013
Recommendation: Matched Trilogy by Ally Condie
Cassia Reyes has never questioned the Society's choices regarding her life. They know what's best for her and all the other residents of the Provinces. From what to eat, how to learn, where to work, who to marry, and even when to die, the Society has been perfecting the art of living for decades. While they've eliminated diseases like cancer and established a baseline for longevity, they've also eliminated choice and individuality. It is the Society's belief that too many options create chaos and uncertainty, which is not conducive to a balanced, fulfilling life. Therefore, in the Society, there is no such thing as a "jack of all trades" - all citizens are experts in one area only. Common knowledge is pre-packaged in neat collections of 100 - the 100 History Lessons, the 100 Paintings, the 100 Poems - nothing is ever added or deleted - this set list is remarkable only for its eternal stagnation. Even relationships are remarkably similar for their lack of interaction. No one is ever allowed in another person's home unless they are immediate family. Not that an individual family's home is markedly different from its neighbors. Kitsch is a thing of the past - citizens are allowed only one personal family artifact, and even those are confiscated shortly into Matched. To hold a mirror up to Cassia's home on Mapletree Borough is merely to project the reflection of the same rooms, landscaping, and family dynamics over and over and over again.
What is remarkable about Condie's storytelling is her ability to make the Society so appealing at first. I was taken in by a life of relative safety and ease. There is literally nothing to worry about because the Society takes care of everything for you - your health, your education, your job, and even your marriage or "match." Condie achieves this seduction on the part of the Society partly through the naivety of Cassia's narration in the opening chapters of Matched. Cassia, like a girl on the way to her first prom, is excited by the green silk dress she wears (one of exactly 100 she could choose from) and the promise of decadent food at the banquet ahead, but mostly she is excited because today is her seventeenth birthday and the day she will meet the person she will spend the rest of her life with, her match. Cassia is surprised and delighted when she learns her match is Xander Carrow - her best friend and the Borough's quintessential "golden boy." Xander is good-looking, friendly, and intelligent - destined for a prestigious job as a government Official. Cassia is stepping onto the conveyor belt of perfection, following the footsteps of all those who came before her and succumbed to the will of the Society. She knows nothing else, but what more could she want? It isn't until a glitch in her Matching microcard shows her Ky Markham's face that she discovers the answer to that question. Ky is an Aberration and not supposed to be a part of the Matching pool at all, but through Ky, Cassia taps into a world of emotion, desire, and creation that she never dreamed existed within the Society's restrictive borders. Ky teaches her to write, and together they enter the hallowed halls of poetry where they learn the power of the written world to wound and inspire, which lays the ground work for a rebellion and a rising both personal and Society wide that hinges on the question hitherto unknown to Cassia and the citizens of the Society, What will you choose?
I spotted Ally Condie's Matched several years ago when I was pursuing the shelves during a bookstore binge. I was immediately intrigued by the unique cover and made a note to pick this up one day. Fast-forward several years later - my librarian calls me as I am literally stepping out the door to begin Christmas break. "We just got in a new shipment. Do you want to come down and grab anything to read over the holidays?" Do I? Minutes later, I had Matched, Crossed, and Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore in my greedy little hands. I devoured Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore first and then turned to Matched. It had been so long since I had read the blurb that I couldn't quite remember what it was about, but I remembered that cover. I began reading and was pleasantly surprised by what I found in its pages. I was immediately reminded of Lois Lowry's The Giver, but I was pleased that Condie chose a female protagonist and focused more the on the Society's matchmaking than professional placement.
As a lover of language and literature, Condie immediately ingratiated herself and her story to me by her inclusion of Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" as the corner stone, not only of Ky and Cassia's love story but their rebellion as well. Interspersed with other lines of poetry, Condie's writing itself is beautiful and poetic. When I was in high school and college, I was constantly seeking out the perfect quote from this song or that book to represent my life or as evidence for my interpretation of a larger theme. I read with pen in hand, which often resulted in permanent ink spots on my couch and bed covers. However, once I graduated, I relished sinking into a story without the need to superimpose my ink on top of it, but Condie's story had me reaching time and time again for a way to preserve this particular language, this particular moment, this particular revelation so that I could return to it to savor long after the story itself was over. It is those pockets of beauty hidden between the pages of Matched, Crossed, and Reached along with larger musings on personal growth and choice that kept me going when the story itself fell victim to inconsistent pacing and an unequally weighted love triangle.
Most dystopias have a love triangle at the center of their story line that creates personal tension in addition to the societal tension brought on by growing unrest on the part of the citizens. On the surface, Condie's trilogy has both of these things. Cassia must choose between Xander, her perfect Society match, and Ky, who makes her aware of a life outside the Society's walls. In making this choice, Cassia travels to the Outer Provinces and into the Carving before returning to Central, the Society's headquarters, as a spy for the Rising. Her travels are dangerous, and for someone who has always relied on others for sustenance and guidance, Cassia is quick to tap into her own survival instincts and blaze her own trail. I admire Cassia for her determination; when she chooses a path, in life or in love, she sticks to it. However, this single-minded focus does not make for a very compelling three book journey. There is little what if? in the pages of Matched, Crossed, and Reached, and although Cassia's, Ky's, and even Xander's journey to join the Rising is dangerous, danger itself rarely reaches them. By far the most thrilling aspect of the novels is the mutated Plague that descends upon the citizens in Reached. The immunology behind the cure is fascinating, but this is only explored in the last hundred pages of a three book series. The rest is a slow build-up to this moment of fast-paced action. Similarly, the love-triangle is not really a love-triangle at all. Cassia chose Ky in the early pages of Matched, and she never wavered in her choice. Condie attempts several times to cast doubt on the young lovers by introducing other potential matches into the threesome, but it seems that in addition to ridding the citizens of the Provinces of the ability to choose their own mates, the Society also eradicated jealousy. These competitors for Ky's and Xander's love never quite become the threat they are intended to be and, instead, become close friends.
However, these minor issues in narration highlight a key theme of the series: choice. Cassia learns that Ky was deliberately inserted into the match pool on behalf of the Rising to wreck havoc with the matching system, and once the Society found out, they decided to monitor the situation because the odds of Cassia being matched with two people she knew are unusual, and the Society is always on the hunt for more data. As this scene illustrates, a person can be compatible with many other people. That person then chooses who to be with, and that choice is not a one-time thing. It is saying I choose you everyday. In my opinion, many marriages fail today because people do not commit to their choice. They fail to remind themselves and their partner that I choose you, and even though Cassia's relationship with Ky is not defined by doubt, it is exemplary because they continue to choose each other. It is a relationship worth modeling. Cassia herself is a character worth emulating as well. Matched may seem at first glance to be a series about fighting for the one you love, but Cassia's story is bigger than that. It is a journey characterized by self-actualization in which Cassia learns how to express herself and dares to stand up for her own independence. Although I think Condie solidifies Cassia's strength of character early on in Matched, it was interesting to see where her choices took her over the course of the series. As Condie wrote, "this is how writing anything is, really. A collaboration between you who give the words and they who take them and find meaning in them, or put music behind them, or turn them aside because they were not what was needed" (Reached).
Best matched with fans of less violent dystopia.