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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Pretties by Scott Westerfeld

Title: Pretties, book two in the Uglies Quartet
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Reviewed Format: UK Paperback
Release Date: July 3, 2006
Pages: 384

Tally Youngblood’s sacrifice from Uglies has turned her into a beautiful, tall, fun-loving, disease-free, and anti-infection masterpiece.  In short, she’s a Pretty.  Like all pretties, she’s forgotten a lot of what most her life was like as an Ugly beyond the normal dumb “tricks” Uglies do for sport and, of course, being ugly.  She drinks champagne, parties all night, stays up until the wee hours of the morning, and wakes up just in time to get ready for the next evening shindig.  The only problem is Tally’s also forgotten why she became pretty.  When a mysterious stranger arrives with a message from her past, Tally struggles to remember what brought her to New Pretty Town in the first place.

Who’s Croy and what does he have to do with David--a name and face that rises out of her past like a ghost--or, for that matter, with her new best friend, Shay, or boyfriend, Zane?  What do the terrifying Specials want with her and why are she and her friends now being closely monitored?

I struggled at first with Scott Westerfeld’s use of the terms ugly, pretty, and special (the namesake of the titles of this series) when I read Uglies.  It’s a choice that makes for interesting wordplays and double-entendres like, “He had no business stepping out of her ugly past” (p. 35) or “This was a Special Circumstance” (p.95).  In context for the former it’s clear Tally means coming from a time before she had her operation (ugly with a capital u, so to say); it’s also inclusive of the phrase that connotes a negative feeling toward her past; both versions work.  There’s a lot of lines like that, especially in the first book since Tally’s life as an ugly is overly concerned with herself as an ugly.  It might make some readers roll their eyes at the pun in a “ha ha” way, but it finally stopped grating against my sensibilities.  Juxtaposed against what it means to be Pretty, even though I couldn’t get rid of the deeply rooted sense of wrong every time I read a line like the one quoted above, I couldn’t help laughing at a lot of instances similar to this: “...memories of the aging ugly faces that still brought her awake screaming sometimes.” (p. 21)  I wonder if Westerfeld keeps a straight face when writing something like that.

There’s a lot less criticism of “Rusty” society and their wasteful ways than in Uglies which made this one less of a cautionary tale and finger-wag lecture and more of an exploration of the experiment to turn people pretty.  Whereas before Westerfeld had the job of introducing us to everything in his new world, now we’re familiar with it all and ready to understand the nitty gritty behind the operation.  We’ve moved on from what and why to how.  In Pretties we get to see further into the lengths the government goes to in order to create a docile society.

For starters, pretties have a language of their own (“pretty talk”) that reenforces their vapid personalities and pack mentality.  Tally and Shay also make frequent use of nicknames sure to make your skin crawl depending on how you imagine the inflection of their voices when saying “Shay-la” or “Tally-wa.”  A lot of things can be described as “-missing” or “-making”; when the concept is combined with the overused “bogus” you can make all sorts of new words, or something like “bogus-smelling”.  If talking this way isn’t enough to dull your brain, then the amount of alcohol consumed by your average pretty will.

In an attempt to fight against this post-surgery stupor, Tally and Zane struggle to remain “bubbly.”  They get thrills out of things once considered ugly “tricks” that keep their adrenaline high, their minds sharp, alert, focused, and make them feel alive, or, bubbly--not like a typical pretty.  Pretties is all about awakening; one section is even titled “Sleeping Beauty.”  Tally has to break free of her Pretty hangover and has to convince fellow Crims what really happens during the pretty surgery and explain their memory loss.  As she begins to awaken from the strange, pretty-induced dream-reality state, she pulls them along with her as she plots with Zane how to escape New Pretty Town and return to the Rusty Ruins as living proof that Maddy’s new cure works.

Along the way she finds Andrew Simpson Smith.  He lives in a village of pre-Rusty savages with a deeply rooted thirst for violence and revenge.  What she discovers there is sinister, but not unexpected.  What is unexpected, and a little curious, is why the Pretty Committee would choose to make all Pretties have olive-colored skin.  It may just be me, but I don’t understand the choice.  Despite this, I liked the fairy tale theme threaded throughout the book.  As each person or group manages to wake to a new reality, it really reveals the ugly truth behind New Pretty Town: all that glitters isn’t gold; the dream of having a tame, non-violent, non-problematic society is just that--a dream.

I really liked the ideas and themes Westerfeld presents in this series.  He touches upon a lot of topics most dystopian books do (wasteful habits, environmental issues, dependence on oil, dependence on technology), but in a way very relatable to younger audiences.  I thought Tally was infinitely more enjoyable this time around, despite not being able to stop bringing trouble down on her friends.  She struggles with guilt, but isn’t given too much time to wallow.  Like Uglies, Pretties propels the reader to a quick ending.  The only surprise will be how Tally breaks free of her new situation.  She’s less inclined to be so black and white now that she’s Pretty and the moral ambiguity of her situation presents itself clearly in things such as having to explain her current relationship with Zane to David, the boy she left behind.  As she works her way deeper into the motivations of New Pretty Town she begins to realize just how large and complex society has become.  It isn’t just Uglies and Pretties anymore.  The consequences have become larger and the words, significantly less annoying by the end.

If you can push past the hyphenated pretty talk, there’s a lot to enjoy in Pretties that Uglies couldn’t offer.  Just be sure you have Specials nearby because you’re going to want to pick it up quickly to find out what happens.  I’ve got my copy right here.

Thanks to Kathryn at Simon & Schuster UK for the review copy!


Lily Child said...

I think this book was my favorite out of the trilogy. Uglies is predictable, but entertaining. Like you said, the background is fleshed out more in Pretties. I really enjoyed the character arc Tally made in this book. Specials...I had a really hard time reading, and ended up not finishing it. I found it really hard to relate to Tally and the choices she was making. Perhaps I'll return to it another time. Excellent review. :)

Erika said...

Thank you!

I'm having a hard time reading Specials, too! I agree, though, it's Tally that's bothering me, but I'm finding a lot to like (or hope gets better) in it so we'll see how it goes.

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