Tally is looking forward to her sixteenth birthday, when she will finally become pretty. At that age, all teenagers receive extensive plastic surgery to remove and refine all of the physical features that set them apart from each other, changing Uglies into the generic Pretties, who spend their new lives partying and having fun. But then Tally meets Shay, an ugly who shows Tally that there is an alternative to the future she’s always expected, and soon Tally is forced to make a choice that she never thought she’d face.
I’ve seen a lot of discussion of this book on Goodreads over the years, so when a copy finally turned up at my local library, I thought it was about time I tried it for myself. Ultimately, I enjoyed the read, but came away from it feeling like Uglies could have been so much more than it actually was.
As a premise for a YA novel, it’s a good one. The focus on appearance, to the detriment of everything else, is particularly relevant to the teenage age group. There’s something immediately uncomfortable about a world that strives towards homogenisation instead of the acceptance and promotion of diversity, and Westerfeld does a good job of depicting his dystopian world.
However, most other aspects of the book do not prove as interesting as its premise. The characters are mostly one-dimensional and Tally seems to me to be a particularly uninspiring protagonist. I understand Westerfeld’s difficulty here. Tally has been brought up in a society that forms its children into acutely shallow beings, and her thoughts and actions are an immediate by-product of this life-long indoctrination. As a character, therefore, she is true to her world. But this authenticity proved to be a barrier to me. I disliked her weakness, her gullibility and her deceptiveness. I found myself wanting her to fail.
For me, the most interesting and likeable character was Shay – but only in the beginning. From Part Two onwards, her relationship with Tally warps into one of feminine rivalry, with a boy in the centre (of course). I, for one, am tiring of endlessly being told by books (and films and television) that women are in competition with each other. I am hoping that something comes of this plot point in later books, because otherwise it’s just hackneyed and destructive.
My other big issue with Uglies is the fact that Westerfeld focusses almost entirely upon physical differences. There is a brief mention of race, but no talk of culture. How do the many religions fit into his world? What about disability? Homosexuality, bisexuality, transsexualism? It’s almost as though his world picture is unfinished. Not having read the rest of the books in the series, I’m hoping that these questions are dealt with in later books but, judging Uglies on its own merits, it felt like there were a few gaps that negatively affected my reading experience.
All that said, I did enjoy this book. It’s a fast-paced read, with a fun concept, plenty of adventure and a cliff-hanger ending that had me ordering the next book into my local library right away. I’m just harsh because it could have been incredible, but instead it was just a lot of fun.