Matched has a natural ability to weave the gripping twists of a mystery and the genuine emotions of a romance into one plot, giving it a creative edge over typical YA dystopian sci-fi books.
Sometime in the far future, people live in a utopian world of tranquility watched over by the Society. The defining feature of this government is that it “matches” its residents with their life partners at the age of seventeen based on their genetic data. A marriage lottery at its core, the philosopher Plato once suggested such an idea to pass down the allegedly “good genes” through generations of humanity. In general the Society concentrates on making sure that nothing disturbs the status quo. The protagonist, Cassia Maria Reyes, is quite comfortable with this. She is initially thrilled to find out on the day of her Match Banquet that her Match is her best friend Xander Carrow. But then she becomes horrified to discover, while looking up his file on her Port (the Society equivalent of computers), a picture of a different boy — Ky Markham, a reserved acquaintance — flicker across the screen. This lays the foundation for a string of events that pushes Cassia to learn more about what could have caused the glitch, who Ky really is, and whether she can depend on the Society anymore.
Ally Condie’s debut novel is the first entry in the Matched trilogy, published in 2010 and succeeded by Crossed and Reached. Its dystopian and sci-fi classifications are merely robes clothing the body of an original, resonant coming-of-age tale — the powerful feelings befitting for a growing teenager, the struggle between a desire for freedom and a desire for safety, the complex love triangle she creates with Xander and Ky. Instead of placing Cassia in the position of spearheading a hackneyed insurgency, the story focuses on the growth of her emotional arc and her relationships, free of the contrivances that can plague competing novels.
It’s worth it to take the time to analyze the book’s twin themes. One is wonder, the curiosity and spontaneity that drive Cassia forward, a quality that’s most obvious when a few characters ask point-blank if they ever wonder. The other theme is reassurance, the stability and peace that equalizes the Society, a quality that’s most obvious during a few specific scenes, including what appears to be an unexpected snow shower. Condie successfully interweaves these two polarizing concepts with the story arc, making it feel even more pertinent on a philosophical level.
Cassia’s first-person POV is eloquently written and helps us understand her character right from the beginning, and that’s a big compliment for a book that starts on her birthday — the dreaded Harry Potter syndrome. You feel as if you’re in her head as she explores her world and interacts with Xander, Ky, and her family. The scenes with her grandfather are especially poignant. There are several times where a passage demonstrates the writing technique of “showing, not telling,” usually through a character’s minute mannerisms. The POV is also quite moving when pieces of history long forgotten in her world are given to a fascinated Cassia; those scenes are pleasantly surreal for the readers. Some of the flashbacks on her childhood can help us connect with her further and shed more light on her relationships, but the extraneous ones will only distract you from the central storyline.
The detailed world-building makes you believe that the Society could hypothetically exist. We’ve already seen some of its attributes in various other stories, such as a Port in each house that serves as a camera and a two-way communication channel or residents being assigned to jobs like sorting or nutrition disposal. Other features are more uncommon, such as the denizens being programmed to peacefully die at the age of eighty or each of them owning one personal treasure called an Artifact and keeping three Society-assigned pills on their person at all times. How you use the blue pill and the green pill are revealed pretty quickly, but the red pill’s purpose remains mysterious for the majority of the book. There are also Officials who act as the Society’s eyes, but their behaviors are more nuanced than the stone-faced enforcers you normally see in these worlds; they’re not even armed with guns or other weaponry. I’m particularly referring to an Official who meets Cassia several times throughout the book and ends up playing a significant role in the plot.
The denouement resolves a few of Cassia’s doubts about her world and the people in her life, but it also opens the way for many more questions to be answered. All in all, Matched is one whirlwind of a tale that will sweep you away to a new world and leave you keen for the sequel.
Windup score: 92/100