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Review of UGLIES by Scott Westerfeld

by Becky Laney

Westerfeld, Scott. 2005. UGLIES. New York: Simon Pulse. ISBN 0689865384

Following his publication of SO YESTERDAY (2004), Scott Westerfeld continues addressing the problems of socialization (social hierarchy) in his latest YA publication UGLIES. The first in a trilogy, UGLIES, examines the issues of beauty, perception, self-awareness, conformity, and self-esteem. And while at first glance, you might think this is just your ordinary YA novel set in any highschool in America...upon further examination, you’ll discover what today’s values about beauty might lead us in the future.

Set at least three to four hundred years in the future, UGLIES is set in a small, rigid community. Our heroine, fifteen year old Tally Youngblood, lives with her fellow uglies (young teens age 12-15) in Uglyville. Upon her sixteenth birthday, she’ll join the pretties and live in New Pretty Town where the only rules were to “Act Stupid, Have Fun, and Make Noise” (12). Middle-aged folks (middle pretties) live in the suberbs and raise littlies (birth to 11). Retired folks (late pretties or crumblies) live outside the suberbs in Crumblyville. Beginning at age 16, people undergo a series of surgeries throughout their lives to transform them into evolution’s or biology’s “perfect” ideal.

In the first chapter, the reader is introduced to Tally who is rather lonely in Uglyville since all of her friends have already become Pretty. She especially misses her best friend, Peris (male) with whom she used to play tricks with. (Uglies tend to like to rebel against the system and try to sneak around the rules.) Tally is on her way to spy on her best friend who lives in Garbo Mansion in New Pretty Town. Although she is almost caught, the adventure proves worth while since she was able to speak to Peris for a few minutes and since she meets a new friend, Shay, whom she discovers shares her birthday. Tally is very relieved to have found someone to turn Pretty with and to spend the last three months of ugliness with. Shay and Tally become almost instant best friends. Shay teaches Tally how to hoverboard, and they share their secrets for getting around the system. Shay is more adventuresome than anyone Tally has ever met...Shay even convinces her to go out to the Rusty Ruins at night and go hoverboarding on an ancient roller coaster. (Not that either of them quite know what that is since both have a rather odd perspective on Rusties.) On their nighttime adventure, Tally is shocked when Shay lights a sparkler as a signal to a mysterious friend named David whom she claims lives Outside of any city. She is shocked that anyone would voluntarily choose to be ugly for life.

While Tally is very eager for the surgery that will make her Pretty, Shay is having doubts all along. She has heard of a way to escape the city and the surgery. A week before their sixteenth birthday, Shay tries to convince Tally to leave Uglyville and come with her to a hidden community ‘the Smoke.’ Tally refuses to even consider the idea of remaining ugly, but Shay insists on leaving her a cryptic handwritten message. Shay makes her escape, but it is Tally who is left to pay for her friend’s decision.

The Special Circumstances division (cruel pretties) are determined to find Smoke which they consider to be a thorn in their side that intices young, rebellious uglies to run away. Tally is given two options: choose to be ugly for the rest of her life and live with the shame or to become a spy and find Shay and the community of Smoke and turn them in. Although Tally hates the idea of betraying her friend, she hates the idea of being ugly more. She agrees, relunctantly, to wear their “locket” (which when activate will alert them to where she is) and make the journey to Smoke.

What she finds in Smoke shocks her in many ways. She is shocked to find young men and women (all ugly) who are working the land. They are gardening; they are hunting; they are mining. Everything is taken seriously in Smoke. The person who shocks her most, although not initially, is David. David is strong, intelligent, and industrious. He is one of the leaders of the community who guides runaway Uglies to safety. Another thing that shocks her--literally changes her perception of the world--is when David tells her that she is beautiful. As she finds herself falling in love with David--even though he isn’t pretty and doesn’t meet the so-called physical requirements for ‘beauty’--she becomes more and more confused. How can she betray this community? When David introduces Tally to his parents, Tally is given the information needed to make her decision. Crucial information which changes her perception of the surgery from being the great “equalizer” of society...to being the great “manipulator” of society. His parents (who are doctors) left the City when they made a great discovery at what “being pretty” is actually costing people.

But just when she makes her final decision--to choose Smoke over New Pretty--she makes a mistake with huge consequences. She throws her locket in the fire and watches it burn thinking that she can now be free of the city and the threat of the Specials. Her decision leads to the capture of most of the people living in Smoke (all but her and David) and several deaths. What’s worse (for Tally) is that David still has no idea that it is all her fault.

Can Tally find a way to make up for her past mistakes? Can she find a way to tell David the truth? Can she save her friends? Tally is willing to risk it all for the sake of her new friends, but can it ever be enough?

UGLIES is a well-written and clever novel. The plot is fast-paced, but unlike most plot-driven books, the characters are well-developed. It is a great thought-provoking book which examines many relevant issues. Its cliff-hanger ending builds great anticpation for its sequel published this November. It has received starred reviews in School Library Journal, Booklist, Kliatt, and Kirkus Reviews.

Westerfeld shares at the beginning that the novel had its basis in a series of email exchanges between him and Ted Chiang author of “Liking What You See: A Documentary” which appears in Chiang’s short story collection STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS (2002).

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