The cover of the book 'Reached' by author Ally Condie. (Penguin Young Readers Group )
Dutton: 384 pp., $17.99, ages 12 and older
Just two years ago, former English teacher Ally Condie released "Matched," a wildly successful young adult crossover novel that landed on general fiction top 10 lists. Taking a bit from Orwell's "1984" and some more from Lois Lowry's "The Giver," Condie crafted a story about a smart teen girl who trusts her government and its system of selecting mates for its citizens — until she falls in love with the wrong boy.
Cool and sophisticated where "The Hunger Games" was red hot and bloodthirsty, "Matched" convinced many that the YA genre was an intelligent force to be reckoned with in the general fiction world. "Crossed," 'the second book' in the series, brought the couple into a rugged terrain and a survivalist mode, but the focus on physical threat didn't save it from feeling slack and aimless.
A third book is practically a given these days, and Condie has taken a brief two years to complete the trilogy with the release of "Reached." An ambitious novel that attempts to weave together the very different strains of the previous books, "Reached" is far better than the second work in the series but never comes close to touching the great heights of the first.
"Matched" created two unforgettable characters: the poetic yet safety-loving Cassia and Ky, the untouchable, wounded boy she can't stop thinking about. The best character in the book, though, is the Society: a chilling, Orwellian state that has created airless, Levittown-like communities of terrified conformity. Shot through with danger and centered on a tormented love triangle, "Matched" was about as deep as a teen romance can get.
"Reached" practically groans with its wide-ranging ambition — Condie navigates at least three opposed civilizations and so many cities and different geographical terrains that it's almost impossible to keep track of them all. As the core characters Cassia, Ky and Xander (the other boy who loves Cassia) separate and find their way back to one another, the Society crumbles and a plague begins to spread. The three scramble to save themselves and their families as the world they've known shatters.
But readers will mourn what's lost. The robotic and sinister Society — so fully realized in the first book — was a threatening outside force in the second novel. It is absolutely defanged here, replaced by an amorphous rebel group called the Rising.
Part of the thrill of "Matched" was the sense that Ky, and maybe even Xander, could be hiding something — to such an extent that one of them might actually be dangerous to our heroine. That kind of tension is difficult to maintain in a trilogy without leaving readers feeling tricked. In "Crossed" and now "Reached," Ky and then Xander begin to tell the story from their perspectives, so the thread of fear that held the story is cut, slackening the tension.
In "Reached," Xander, Cassia and Ky all speak, yet their voices seem interchangeable. Unless readers are really focused, it's easy to forget who is talking. Opening up the narrative means that the shadows and mystery, the noir elements that so creepily lurked beneath the surface of "Matched," are exposed to the light, leaving little of the ambiguity that made the first book such a fine achievement.
Condie also misses opportunities to flesh out some of the surprises. Because she's juggling so much, revelations that could have been shockers are mere plot twists on the path to the finale. And the romance that began as the heaving heart of the series now feels stretched — does anyone this far in really wonder whom Cassia is going to choose?
YA novels are just getting the credit that many deserve. The pressure on writers to quickly churn out series, however, undercuts the achievement. "Matched" was an accomplishment — a great book on its own terms. Maybe they should have just stopped there.