Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
Uglies came out my first year of high school, and I’ve always been arrested by the cover–a pretty girl hiding behind some sort of plant. I’ve always meant to read the series, and when Simon & Schuster gave an eBook of Uglies away for free this summer while they were promoting Leviathan, I figured it would be a good opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. I could read Uglies and experience an eBook at the same time.
Uglies is the story of Tally Youngblood, a fifteen year old waiting for her sixteenth birthday, when she will be turned pretty by an operation–like everyone else in her world. Tally, as the youngest of her friends, feels a little alone, and befriends a girl named Shay who shares her birthday. But Shay doesn’t want to be pretty, and before her operation, runs away to the mysterious Smoke, a community of uglies who have rejected the operation and are living off the grid. However, Tally’s friendship with Shay stops her operation, and Tally is given a choice by the terrifying department of Special Circumstances- either find Shay and betray her and the Smoke, or never go under the knife.
It definitely reads as quality young adult fiction towards the younger end of the spectrum. While Tally and the rest of the cast are all distinctive, they’re not too complex, the writing is very clear, and the quick pace makes it hard to put down. I stayed up until two in the morning on Friday to finish this! There are no standout moments in the writing, to be honest, but you’re enthralled. That’s perfect for the audience Westerfeld is aiming at.
My favorite part of Uglies is watching Tally overcome her social conditioning about beauty and everything else. It doesn’t take a conversation with Shay to convert her, as she’s been inundated with this ever since she was a baby. All of Shay’s earnest talks about beauty absolutely vanish when Tally’s parents, cosmetically modified to be authoritative and reassuring, visit her. Watching Tally appraise Shay’s looks in comparison to the pretty standard and doing her best not to recoil from the “ugly” people in the Smoke is quite chilling. It can also be quite charming–when Tally falls in love, she’s utterly confused that an “ugly” appears attractive to her. Tally is appalled and horrified by the residents of the Smoke living off the land, since she comes from the ultimate sustainable living community. Despite the age range for this novel, Westerfeld doesn’t shy away from nuance. While the pretties not being perfect is really the point of the story, the uglies aren’t perfect either.
I do have to say that Tally, as a character, didn’t particularly impress me. She is a good heroine, with plenty of conflict, and I loved watching her grow. But I think the necessary amount of unlearning what she has learned in this novel kept her from coming into her own until the very end. Hopefully, this means that she’ll evolve into an amazing heroine in the sequels, but she just didn’t do it for me in Uglies.
Westerfeld’s world building is quite subtle. Tally doesn’t have long conversations explaining her world to anyone, not even her love interest, an “ugly” born and raised in the wilderness who learned about her world from his parents. Our culture is known to Tally’s culture as the Rusties, believed to be idiotic and selfish people who destroyed the earth and did little else, hence Tally’s world’s devotion to equality and sustainability. As Tally walks along the ruins and talks with the residents of the Smoke, we occasionally learn about the Rusties and Tally’s culture–we’re even given a tentative date. But it’s never forced, which I love.
Uglies isn’t perfect–sometimes the plot moves along too quickly. Towards the end, for instance, Westerfeld pulls an item out of essentially thin air, which really hurt my suspension of disbelief. The hoverboarding reminds me of late ’90s video games more than anything, so Uglies feels, of all things, a little dated to me! Also, Tally’s culture’s habit of appending “-ie” to nouns to describe people can feel a little childish at times–usually, it works, as her culture is a bit childish, but sometimes it grates. Still, these are very small quibbles. I think, after my last two series starter disappointment, here’s a book series I’m actually going to follow!
Reading this as an eBook was quite weird, I have to say. I don’t have any type of digital reader, so I simply read the .pdf file in Preview on my Mac. I’ve looked for some other programs to make the reading process more visually appealing, but I haven’t found much. It worked for Uglies, because of the pacing, but I don’t think it would work for a slower book. It’s just a medium, but I’d prefer to see Pretties in print.
Bottom line: A fast-paced sci-fi young adult novel with a good heroine, surprisingly nuanced take on social conditioning, and marvelously subtle world building, Uglies is well worth the read.
I got this eBook from Simon & Schuster during an online event in the summer for free.