Letter Essay #9 – Uglies
Recently, we finished the 407 page dystopian novel, Uglies. Written by New York Times bestselling author Scott Westerfeld, this story follows the journey of a young girl named Tally as she discovers the truths about everyone and everything around her.
Westerfeld is an author of many novels, mostly in the young adult area. Other works of his include Afterworlds and So Yesterday. Surprisingly, being an author was not what his plan after graduating college. Westerfeld was a factory worker, a substitute teacher, and a software designer until he realized that he could contribute a lot more to the literary world. With so much recognition for the Uglies, Westerfeld continued the series with three more novels, one of which is a companion book. The wide-spoken praise that we heard of this book is the reason why we decided to read it (not just because we are in the science fiction unit). It has become a staple in the dystopian genre so we decided to give it a try. We all agree now that this was not the best decision.
Uglies introduces the reader to Tally Youngblood. All of her life, Tally looked forward to the surgery on her sixteenth birthday. The surgery that fixed her squinty eyes, frizzy brown hair, thin lips, and flat nose. It was the surgery to make her pretty. From there, Tally was to be spoiled in New Pretty Town, absorbed in the constant party scene and opulent apartments. She would be reunited with her pretty friends whom previously had the operation and would no longer be alone in the dorms of Uglyville. Until one night, while pulling an over-the-top ugly trick, she met another ugly named Shay. Shay saw the world differently, in a way that questioned all Tally had ever known. Shay’s rebellious actions ultimately dragged Tally into a situation with Special Circumstances, an organization responsible for keeping the city safe from both internal and external forces. In the search to find her friend, Tally left her small world for one she didn’t know existed.
We feel that the theme of the book, although quite obvious, is that beauty is more than skin deep. As the story builds, Tally learned to steer away from her own vanity. She only cooperated with Special Circumstances because the threat of not getting the operation loomed over her. However, as she was exposed to more characters and different perspectives, she realized that she is not her looks. She discovered that she was taught to hate her own appearance, to not be comfortable in her own skin. David, a guy Tally meets on her journey, explains his unique view on the works of the city. He said to her, “ And now everyone is happy, because everyone looks the same : They’re all pretty,” (267). Scott Westerfeld cleverly used satire to showcase the misconception of beauty. Beauty is not limited to one kind; it is not black and white. When the city takes away one’s looks to fit the stereotype that is pretty, they take away one’s individuality. If it is decided that when you reach your sixteenth birthday, you change to fit into a mold, diversity is lost. Scott Westerfeld highlighted this by showing the exact opposite, but in the process made the readers more aware of how different and beautiful everyone is, on the inside and out.
We liked the way that Westerfeld chose to end the book. Not only was it a very climactic part in the story, but it was a time when the reader was exposed to the true personalities of a few of the characters. Tally and David rescued some of the Smokies from the Special Circumstances building; however, not before they turned Shay into a pretty. Once they regroup, an important piece of information is revealed. Maddy, David’s mother, discovered a cure for the lesions, the damaging cells that are implemented during the surgery to alter a person’s personality. Being a prototype, the medication has risks to it, but the opportunity could not have presented itself better. In Tally’s eyes, their test subject was in reach. But Shay dismissed the offer, not willing to lose everything that she had just gained. Tally wanted to disregard Shay’s decision and feed her the medicine willingly or not. Maddy immediately intervenes with an argument against how morally wrong it would be to do that. “‘That’s the difference between us and them ,’ Maddy said. ‘After Az and I found out what the operation really meant, we realized we’d been party to something horrible. People had had their minds changed without their knowledge. As doctors, we took an ancient oath never to do anything like that.’ (p. 394)”. We really agreed with Maddy’s decision here because it demonstrated the correct way of handling the situation. She no longer thought like the city people; she put others needs before her needs, even at a crucial time like this. For once in this entire book, a character had made the right decision.
We were angry about Tally’s procrastination in telling David and the other Smokies as to why she traveled to the Smoke. Tally was originally sent to the Smoke by Dr. Cable, the woman in charge of Special Circumstances. If she brought back the runaways from the Smoke, then Tally would get her wish. After arriving to the Smoke and spending some time with people who had authentic personalities, Tally realized that becoming pretty was no longer what she wanted. She became aware of the fact that she would much rather live her life here, away from the controlling and manipulative people from the city. Tally did not reveal to David that she was sent to the Smoke on a mission to bring the runaways back to Uglyville until late in the book. The angering part about this is that she constantly thought about telling the truth and had many opportunities available, which she completely ignored. The reader of course understands that the longer you wait to tell someone something, the larger the chance is that they won’t take it well. As might be expected, when Tally finally told David why she had really come to the Smoke, it was an impossible time and the outcome was devastating to both Tally and David. We think that if she would have told him from the beginning that she was there to stay, the story would have had a very different ending.
A passage that we liked from the novel is at the point in the story where Tally discovers a note left to her from Shay. It gives encrypted instructions on how to get to The Smoke. The note reads…
“Take the coaster straight past the gap,
Until you find one thing that’s long and flat.
Cold is the sea and watch for breaks.
At the second make the worst mistake.
Four days later take the side you despise,
And look in the flowers for fire-bug eyes.
Once they’re found, enjoy the flight.
Then wait on the bald head until it’s light.” (page 108)
This passage was well-written and showed how creative Westerfeld’s writing is. Instead of just simple, clear directions, Shay left riddles that could only be solved from the memories of the time they spent together. Later, on page 161, we find out that the line “the side you despise,” is referring to a conversation they had when talking about the surgery. Tally revealed to Shay towards the beginning of the novel that she had always hated the right side of her face. After recalling this memory, Tally realizes that she must make a right turn and successfully continues the journey. The rest of the note continues in this fashion and we all agree that it was a clever way of getting the reader thinking, as well as reading more closely. This passage definitely emphasizes Westerfeld’s creative way of writing.
Overall, we feel that this book could have been executed a lot better. The characters were not developed or created in a way that you can relate to them and that was probably the foremost reason why we did not enjoy the book. And while there were aspects of the nove we enjoyed, it deserves a 5/10 and we would certainly not recommend it to anyone who does not enjoy unrelatable and predictable dystopian novels.
Alexandra Popescu, Micah Rasmussen, and Kristen Kuczmarski