Book Review: "Uglies," by Scott Westerfeld

Posted on March 7, 2007

I realize everyone else in the world read this book a couple of years ago, but I just now got to it:


At first I thought this book was going to be too bluntly allegorical for me to sink into; the phrase “New Pretty City” nearly did me in. But thankfully, I stuck with it — Westerfeld’s worldbuilding is far more complex than the first couple of chapters suggest, evolving and growing until, by the end of the book, you have a wealth of information and know that it’s only a small piece of the overall puzzle.

At 16, everyone in this society is made “Pretty,” i.e., surgically altered to be physically beautiful to a point that people almost cannot respond rationally. Westerfeld does a particularly fine job of NOT describing this; he talks about how people are made to feel when they’re around Pretties, not the physical specifics. (He then subverts what the readers may be envisioning later when two characters look at a magazine from our era and consider even our movie stars and supermodels to be hideous.)

The main character is Tally, a fairly typical 15-year-old girl who is fast approaching her birthday and is eager to become Pretty. She wants to be with her former best friend, Peris, who has had no time for her since he became Pretty, and to banish her own perceived shortcomings. Of course, she swears to herself that she won’t become as shallow and vapid the way most Pretties do.

Then she meets Shay, who thinks for herself, tests the boundaries of Uglyville (where the young ones are kept) and suspects that there’s more to becoming Pretty than the physical — and not in a good way. Shay is the character that most readers would gravitate toward, the more “natural” lead for the story; however, Tally proves to be the right choice for a number of reasons, and I can’t get into too many of them without spoiling the whole book.

I did enjoy the anti-superficiality “message” of the book, but not nearly as much as I came to love the world Westerfeld created. It’s a perfect blend between the wholly credible and the wholly fantastic — but fun. Why not a whole city atop a metal grid, so that teenagers can surf around on hoverboards all day? Why not bungee jackets? Why not sentient bridges that can decide whether or not to let kids get away with pranks? All of these creations are both fascinating and fun in their own right and useful for the plot, in ways both expected and surprising.

The characters were less distinct to me, but in large part, I think that was because Tally evolves so much throughout the book. She’s a cipher to start with, but there’s a reason for it — and the events of the story transform her into a much more believable and individual character. And only when she’s become more of an individual herself can she form more nuanced impressions of the people around her. Fortunately, the energy of the plot and the creativity of the worldbuilding carried me through to the point where the characters gained life and color.

The one thing I didn’t entirely buy about the world of New Pretty City and Uglyville was how incredibly expensive it all was; if the society has this wealth of resources, why are they so threatened and oppressive instead of slack, fat and happy? In the alternative, if they exercise such crushing control over the populace, why do they have to bribe them with these operations? But this is the part where you shrug, remind yourself of the allegorical aspects of the story and move on. (Also, I wonder if maybe Westerfeld will address some of this in the two sequels — which I now have to read.)

Anyway, I highly recommend this for readers of YA. It’s not the best YA book I’ve read this year (that was The House of the Scorpion), but its originality and energy made it more than worthwhile.

Still waiting on editorial note. I’ve had a brainstorm about how to fix the first chapter of Evernight, which has been taunting me about needing to be fixed for months — but how to do it eluded me until about, um, 10:45 a.m. today? But now I think I’ve got it. So I hope I’ll be able to start the revision process soon, while the iron is hot, so to speak.

Many people are complaining about our weather in New York today, but this sort of thing — light snow, blowing just a little bit — is the sort of thing I like. Up until a month ago, it hardly even felt like winter; then yesterday, it was HARSH BITTER DEATH GALE WINDS that cut to the bone. But this is nice.

4 Responses to “Book Review: "Uglies," by Scott Westerfeld”

  1. counteragent

    Yay for Westerfeld. 🙂

    I think he’s tons of fun. Pretties is probably the best of the three, but they all entertain.

    The Midnighters series also has impressive world-building and features some very colorful characters. It’s also scary as heck, I think. *pimps*