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Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

picture of book cover

Fun fact: about every other review of young adult literature that you’ll read in our modern era starts with “In a future/dystopian universe…”

In fairness to Uglies (The Uglies) , Scott Westerfeld got to this territory long before Suzanne Collins or Ally Condie. The first in a four-book series, it’s not his fault that this 2005 book felt familiar and dreary to me.

That said, I do fault Westerfeld’s plot and characters, if not his premise. When you turn 16 in the world of the Uglies, you have extensive cosmetic surgery to become a Pretty. Tally can’t wait – her best friend has already moved to New Pretty Town, and the opening chapters find her darting across town to see him. Lonely, she strikes up a friendship with a girl named Shay. But when Shay decides to escape instead of becoming a Pretty, Tally must make a decision to betray her best friend or never become a Pretty.

From a feminist yay-teenage empowerment standpoint, I like Westerfeld’s world. His exploration of what being Ugly and Pretty means to teenagers, and the modern-day evils of cosmetic surgery, is commendable. But there’s no subtly in his writing, i.e. “A little red and flaking skin should go quite nicely with the scratches on her ugly face” or the villainous Dr. Cable threatening Tally with “If you don’t agree right now, I’ll find someone else. And you’ll be ugly forever.” Cue evil music.

While you are supposed to root for Tally to find her Inner Beauty, in the end her love interest is attracted to her because … she’s independent? She’s stronger than she thinks she is? The boy gave her some gloves? It’s a relationship that is flat, and oddly boring given all the action going on around them.

If you’re looking for something akin to Uglies’ premise, I’d recommend Memento Nora, Delirium or, for more of a challenge, Never Let Me Go (Movie Tie-In Edition) (Vintage International) . Now there’s a book that explores medical ethics in a creepy dystopian future.