What I mean by this is that truly good books, quality books, are those that affect the reader in some manner. The effect on the reader can be emotional (laughing, crying, getting excited, feeling scared or in suspense, feeling a kinship because of identifying with the character, etc.), philosophical (making one think, making one consider the world in a new way, bringing a self-realization), or what have you. A feeling of escapism or immersion is a common thread in these books as well - if the book draws you in so deeply that you get to the point where when you have to put it down all you want to do is pick it right up again to see what happens next, or where you read through the night even though you know you'll be dead tired at work the next day, or where you don't hear people coming up behind you because you are so deep in the story, that's a sign of a good book. But whatever the type, there has to be some sort of effect on the reader to make the book memorable. And if there isn't, then in my view, the book wasn't really worth reading - because you get nothing out of it, either while reading or to take away with you.
I realize that it might seem harsh of me to hold Matched up as one of these books that's not worth reading - harsh not because it's not true, but because there are probably much worse books out there that would fall in this category. But since Matched is the book being bandied about right now, I felt the need to give it a bit of thought: why was I so unimpressed with this book that's getting a lot of attention that I was surprised to hear it was getting recognition at all? At the very least, there are certainly more badly written books (haha, Twilight, for one); but I think that's part of what irked me so much about this book - it is actually fairly well-written, in a grammatical and structural sense - and so it bothers me so much more that there's absolutely nothing to it. It's like drooling over a well-formed chocolate truffle, and then biting into it and discovering there's no filling inside. Or, to be even more accurate, it's like opening up a book that has a pretty, iridescent cover with an intriguing picture of a girl in a green dress trapped in a bubble on it, and discovering the cover's the most interesting part of the whole thing.
In terms of plot, the story is fairly simple (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD).
Cassia, the main character, lives in a boring-ass "Society" where they've intentionally destroyed most of the literature and knowledge and personal belongings of the members of society, and there's no outwardly permitted individuality, and everything they do is determined by statistically based systems, including how much they eat and sleep and exercise and who they're "matched" with. There's a reason for this, which I forget but vaguely think had something to do with, you know, war or world hardship or something that caused them to come up with this system to...oh hell, whatever. I know it's in there, but can't remember and frankly don't care. [Oh wait, I found the explanation, 30 pages in - the world before the Society was too "cluttered" with, like, knowledge and things, and people got "overwhelmed" by that and technology, so they decided to streamline each person's knowledge to a particular area and make all people's material and educational lives pretty much the same. Um...so that's one reason I don't find this book very believable - because I know I'm not the only one here who would only give up things like my books and DVDs and iPod and smartphone and internet and the like if they were pried out of my cold, dead hands. Or who would rebel against not knowing how to write or being allowed to create things or teach others to create things if I wanted to. Why in the hell would a whole society agree that less knowledge and tech would be awesome and helpful and solve problems? What? That's stupid. And Condie didn't go through the trouble of trying to convince me otherwise by using any sort of anecdotes or details of the past society that would change my view of this as a reader in today's world.]
So Cassia goes to her Matching party and gets matched with her best friend Xander, who's cute and clever and nice and almost a Marty Stu except he does actually have some personality (rarity!). Then (ZOUNDS!) she sees another face on the screen that's supposed to tell her her match, and realizes it's the outsider in their teen group, Ky. And then she spends a giant fistful of pages thinking about what this could mean, and whether she should act on what she saw, and whether she should be with Xander or Ky, while doing boring-ass activities like watching the same movie with the same people for the umpteenth time, and hiking up and down a hill (which in their Society, is majorly exciting), and doing her job of data entry. Also her grandfather dies, which is a shame, because as one of the only people left who remembers the old society where things were creative and interesting, he's an actually vaguely quirky character who tries to slyly make Cassia more interesting by giving her secret poems that were supposed to have been destroyed and telling her stuff she shouldn't know. Oh well. To make a long story short, eventually after lots of hiking and reading the poems and Ky teaching her to write (they aren't allowed to in the Society), she realizes she loves Ky, not Xander. Probably because he's one of the few people in the book who actually bothers to create stuff, although he's so grim that I still find him fairly unappealing. Xander, despite seeming to care about her, is totally fine with this change in events somehow, because, you know, he knows Ky's a decent guy and what are you gonna do, right? Anyway.
So after a million pages of this plot development, Cassia takes some data entry test related to her future job security (getting to be a data entry feeb is MUCH better than the other options in their society like working in a factory with things that can kill you), and as she "sorts" people into their future jobs (this is the test, believe it or not) she decides to sort Ky into a group she thinks will be better for him - but OH NO, it turns out the test folks have tricked her, and by putting him in the group that doesn't have to work with poisons that eventually kill you, he's now going to be sent off to fight a war. Oh, and also there's something weird going on with trees (that we never find out any more about) and Cassia realizes her Society poisons old people to keep them from getting too old. And that the Society Officials purposely let Ky know about the double-match with him and Xander and then sat back to see what would happen. So basically they contrived the love triangle that is the book's whole reason for existing, just for something to do. And skipping ahead, at the end of the book, Cassia's wound up out in the outer provinces of the world somewhere, gardening, and has decided to go look for Ky, who is on the war front. And...that's the book.
Now, I realize that a) Condie's monotonous world is written that way to try and make a point, i.e. Shucks, This Dystopia Is Really Pretty Dystopian And Bad; and b) there's apparently a sequel coming out, presumably so that Cassia can, you know, go find Ky and...stuff, so that might explain the completely bland ending slightly. But...see...I just don't care. About Cassia, about Xander and Ky, about the romance "triangle" of two-boys-who-love-one-girl-who-can't-dec
A big part of the problem here, I think, is that Condie really needs to learn the lesson of "show, not tell" - which I realize can seem odd to say when the medium is text, but there is a HUGE difference between, say:
"She's in bed, dying, very sick and dying, with the blankets pulled up, but is still very focused on watching him work on carpentry through the window."
"The quilt is drawn up to her chin, hot as it is, with only her two hands and her face outside. She is propped on the pillow, with her head raised so she can see out the window, and we can hear him every time he takes up the adze or the saw. If we were deaf we could almost watch her face and hear him, see him. Her face is wasted away so that the bones draw just under the skin in white lines. Her eyes are like two candles when you watch them gutter down into the sockets of iron candlesticks. But the eternal and the everlasting salvation and grace is not upon her."
(William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying)
DAMN, what a difference. The difference between paint-by-number and Picasso.
Sadly, Matched only comes even close to the second type of description a very few times; the rest of the book's construction is so matter of fact and methodical (possibly intentionally as an attempt to convey how drab the society is, but it doesn't work; it just makes the writing dull) that the entire book plods along, in the vein of:
"There aren't two seats together. I find a seat first, and Ky sits across from me. He leans forward, resting his elbos on his knees. Someone, another worker, calls out a greeting to him and Ky calls back. The train is crowded and people pass between us, but I can watch him now and then in the gaps they leave. And it strikes me that this might be part of the reason I'm going to see my father today; not just to destroy the paper, but to ride on this train with Ky."
(Ally Condie, Matched)
I realize that this is just a fragment taken from the whole, but the whole book is written in this style (I got up, I put on my shirt, I put on my pants, I put on my shoes, I tied them, I went to breakfast, my brother came to breakfast, I had a vague insight or thought brought on by this whole process, you get the point), which means there's nothing exciting to stand out against this background of step-by-step description except for Cassia's occasional thoughts, and those are mostly commonplace. And the fact that this is the narrator's voice detaches me from the story; because Cassia is supposed to be different; slightly rebellious in her thinking, or...something - but Condie never really gives us a spark to hold on to. I mean, there's a reason we're following her story, right? So what is it? Condie never makes us feel it, unless the sole reason is, "because her match is an aberration in the system, hey let's see what she does with this situation." Seriously, that's the only thing that seems to make this girl different from the rest. Hell, I'd much rather follow Xander's story - at least he cracks a joke once or twice, making him infinitely more human-seeming and probably more fun as a narrator ("Cassia steps on the train with me. I wonder what she's thinking. Probably something about how people are walking slowly to the train, just like they do every day, and stepping onto it, one foot before the other, and sitting down in a row, and...wow, I am really glad she fell in love with that Ky dude instead. At least our Other Friend Em gets visibly nervous now and again. It's a change in the monotony. Maybe tomorrow she'll faint!").
This pedestrian tone is a failure in worldbuilding, which I use not just in the sense of creating a structure in which to place your story (i.e. small town; big futuristic city; terraformed universe for world-hopping renegade space cowboys (thank you Joss Whedon)) but also in the sense of creating such a tangible world that the character seems comfortable with it (whether happy in it, or not) and the reader is drawn in without having to make a conscious effort. I honestly think the problem here may be that Condie tried too hard. In a truly immersive book, what you have is a world that is so fully formed in the writer's mind that she is able to narrate the action and thoughts of the character as if everything in the world, which may be new to the reader, is not new to the character. Whereas Condie's narrator tells the story as if she knows she's talking to someone who's never seen her world before, but without the actual conceit of a character consciously explaining a different world to the reader. It's like Condie knew one has to build a world for a book, so she set out explaining it to us, piece by laborious piece. The result is jarring, since Cassia describes each and every thing that would work differently in her world than in ours, but without there being a reason for the descriptions other than, "this is different." For example, we find out in the first couple of chapters somewhere that each person gets special food delivered to them that has the right amount of nutrients and calories for that individual. On page 145 she repeats this information, unnecessarily. It's like she thinks maybe we the readers didn't get the point the first time or forgot, or that we actually care enough to read it twice. And she does this with lots of world details, re-explaining each way the Society is different from the real world over and over in slightly different contexts. As I said: trying too hard.
If you think that I'm being too harsh here, or picking on Condie's book too much, just pause for a moment, anyone who's read, say, 1984 or Brave New World, and think about how you felt while reading them. Did you feel downtrodden and depressed? Probably. Because damn, those books are depressing. But at least you didn't feel (if you were me, at least) like stifling a yawn and wondering if anything more exciting was ever going to happen. That's the difference between quality lit and this. Or, to use another example of a main character in a dystopian world where the members of society are sorted into occupations and stripped of individuality (sound familiar?):
"So we [main character Equality 7-2521] wished to be sent to the Home of the Scholars. We wished it so much that our hands trembled under our blankets in the night, and we bit our arm to stop that other pain which we could not endure. It was evil and we dared not face our brothers in the morning. For men may wish nothing for themselves. And we were punished when the Council of Vocations came to give us our life Mandates which tell those who reach their fifteenth year what their work is to be for the rest of their days."
(Ayn Rand, Anthem)
Gripping, isn't it? Just a tiny paragraph, but already we understand something of this character's core, and what drives him. And we want to know what happens next - like how is he punished, this poor guy who really, really wants to learn so badly that he's in physical discomfort from being stifled? We care because he is a strong personality in what we can already tell is going to be a difficult situation. And that brings me to the other problem with Matched: it lacks any kind of passion or force. It lacks that spark of empathy that pushes us as readers to care about the character like I care, after only a few pages, about poor Equality 7-2521.2
I only wish I cared that much about Cassia and her friends, or that there was a better book being held up as one of the "most popular books of 2010." Because when it comes down to it, I really want there to be more well-written and engaging books for teens. And though certainly at the very least Matched is innocuous, and it won't destroy a teen's ability to understand good sentence structure (Twilight, I'm looking at you) and it won't, again to use Twilight as an example, make teen girls think it's okay for their love interests to stalk them or something; on the other hand...it doesn't really have anything substantial to offer, either. I really wish it did.3
1. Nota bene: I haven't read The Hunger Games yet, but cleolinda discusses them here. They sound a lot more interesting.
ETA: Also, for two other reviews of Matched, check out the thoughts of r_a_black and cleolinda. And for another review of The Hunger Games, spectralbovine's thoughts.
2. And now I really want to go read Anthem again.
3. For some great YA books/books with teen protagonists or stories appropriate for kids/teens, there's always: T.A. Barron [Heartlight; The Ancient One]; Gene Stratton Porter [Freckles; Girl of the Limberlost]; Esther Friesner [Nobody's Princess; Nobody's Prize; etc.]; Terry Pratchett [Nation; The Tiffany Aching series; The Johnny Maxwell series; The Bromeliad Trilogy]; Susan Cooper [The Dark is Rising series]; C.S. Lewis [The Chronicles of Narnia series]; Ray Bradbury [Dandelion Wine and his other novels about young adults]; Diana Wynne Jones [the Chrestomanci and Howl groups of stories]; Orson Scott Card [Ender's Game]; and...so many more. I realize these are for the most part not the newest books out there, but at least I can assure you they're all quality.