Illustration for review of Ally Condie's "Matched." (Michael Kirkham / For The…)
Dutton: 384 pp., $17.99
Imagine a world of perfect efficiency, in which the culture has been culled into lists of best songs and poems and paintings. Today's plethora of technology has been pared to three standard-issue gadgets. Meals are custom-prepared for individuals' nutritional needs and delivered directly to their kitchens.
What happens when a computer glitch causes a fissure in that perfect, if choreographed, world? That's the question at the center of "Matched," the first installment of a new dystopian trilogy by Ally Condie. Unfolding in a country that may be the futuristic aftermath of the U.S., "Matched" plots the course of a perfectionist teen who becomes a budding rebel after a series of small events shatter her lifelong preconception that the government is operating in citizens' best interests.
It's a story that will appeal to fans of Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games" and Allegra Goodman's "The Other Side of the Island" — young-adult titles that follow similarly well-behaved and intelligent heroines who slowly realize they've been duped.
Told from the perspective of 17-year-old Cassia, "Matched" is written in a style that mimics the emotional development of its young protagonist. At first, Cassia expresses herself with a cheerful lack of inquisitiveness as she readies herself for the most important night of her life: The matching banquet where she will learn the name and see the face of the fellow 17-year-old with whom she's been paired and to whom she will be married and bear children. The match is supposed to be infallible, perfect, designed to provide the government with the healthiest future citizens and its couples with the best chances at successful family lives.
Like the society in which Cassia lives, the writing in the beginning chapters is neat and efficient as she learns she's been matched with her life-long friend Xander, a good-looking nice guy most girls would be thrilled to have as a partner. Cassia doesn't question the match. She's nervous about how it will affect her friendship with Xander, but she is happy and does what's expected of her.
In preparation for their first date, Cassia looks at the micro-card the government issued to learn more about her future mate. When she does, she is presented with a different match for another boy, Ky, and that is when the seeds of doubt are sown.
Cassia lives in a society that doesn't put stock in luck among a citizenry that believes nothing can ever go wrong. How, she wonders, could this happen? Spending time with both boys, Cassia's questioning becomes an active search for answers about why her government forces its couples into arranged unions, why its citizens are channeled into highly specific jobs and what it's hiding.
A line from a contraband Dylan Thomas poem becomes Cassia's mantra: "Do not go gentle…" Illicit poetry is also the basis of her budding romance with Ky — a romance the government may have orchestrated, even though Xander, the government tells Cassia, is her true match.
As Cassia engages in more unsanctioned behaviors that could get her in trouble, Condie's writing mirrors the increasing complexity of her world. As the suspense builds, Cassia's language is less naive, her thoughts more frantic, if emboldened. All the while, her interactions with both boys are innocent. The most contact they have is holding hands and a couple of kisses (Condie spares the physical details).
Cassia is growing up, and she's ready to cast off her shackles and live life on her own terms. Will Cassia succeed? Will she be punished? Readers won't know until "Crossed," the second book in the series, due out next fall. But one thing's for sure: "Matched" is a wonderful debut with strong, rather than strident, feminist undertones — a primer for young minds encouraged to question.