I recently finished a novel about a society that really values traditional marriage.
The novel takes place in the future, several generations after civilization as we now know it has self-destructed. Technology is the main culprit. "Everyone had technology, too much of it," we learn, "and the consequences we disastrous." Details, unfortunately, are sketchy. In the aftermath of this techno-apocalypse, the survivors created the Society, a kind of nation-state that makes its decisions based on what's best for the community. Every aspect of life is determined by logic. Rather than leaving its members to make their own choices, the leaders of the Society--the Officials--make their choices for them based on data that is collected, sorted, and analyzed to ensure a collective happiness.
Nobody questions the system because it always delivers on its promises.
The pinnacle of the Society is marriage. When members of the Society turn seventeen, most of them are given the option to remain single--which is clearly the second best option--or be matched with someone from the opposite sex who, statistically speaking, would make the best match (think of it as a more serious version of those compatibility tests you took in Junior High). Significant pomp and circumstance surrounds the announcement of these matches, which are made during an exclusive ceremony called the Match Banquet.
As I mentioned, most members of the Society are given the choice of being matched. Still, within the Society are also aberrations, or members of the Society who perform menial labor and are barred from marriage. In many ways, these aberrations are no different from other members of the Society, and nothing about their physical appearance betrays their low status. Yet, for one reason or another, the Society has branded them pariahs.
Herein is the central conflict of Matched: what happens when someone who has already been matched falls in love with an aberration?
Love triangles seem to be a Tree of Life for a lot of YA fiction these days, and Matched certainly holds to the rod. Cassia, the novel’s main character and narrator, is matched early in the novel to Xander, her best friend since childhood, but she quickly develops feelings for Ky, another childhood friend, when they become hiking buddies during their recreation time. I’m not going to reveal too much about the plot, since a novel like Matched depends upon the potency of its secrets, but I will say this: things don’t go well for Cassia and Ky. For one, Ky is an aberration. He’s also a poetry-reading rebel with a knack for drawing pictures on napkins.
Need I say more?
Overall, Matched is a good book, although it’s nothing exceptional. At times, for example, the world Condie presents us seems rather generic, so we never get a sense that we’ve been transplanted into a strange, new environment. For me, this is the book’s main drawback. When I read science fiction and fantasy, I want to be taken someplace that unsettles me with its foreignness. The characters are also a little flat, especially Xander, who isn’t given enough face-time to leave readers with a lasting impression. Cassia is the most “realistic” character, and it’s through her strong narrative voice that we are allowed to share in her struggles over questions of freedom, government, happiness, choice, and conscience. She’s a smart character, and the fascinating emergence of her disillusionment is really what carries this book and makes it succeed as well as it does.
Reading it, I recognized a lot of tropes from other dystopian novels like 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and especially The Giver. If you are a hardcore fan of these kinds of novels, then you may get bored with Matched since it brings nothing new to the genre. However, if you’re not hardcore (I imagine most of us fall into this category), then Matched might be worth the day or two it will take for you to read it. My ideal readers for this book, though, would be the tweens and early teens crowd. I think they’re the kinds of people who would benefit most from the dilemmas the characters characters face.
Of course, as a Mormon reader and reviewer, I tried to look around for a cool Mormon subtext in Matched--you know, something that goes beyond mere thematic issues. I didn’t really find anything too significant, but I won’t be too surprised if I attend a conference one day and hear a paper read that parallels the Society with an Althusserian-style reading of Mormonism.
Here’s a common enough situation: our friend the literary critic—let’s call him “Walter”—picks up a copy of, say, Twilight and opens it up and stays awake all night reading it. Walter, being a well-educated man with highly refined tastes and sensibilities, is not overly impressed by the book, nor is he dying to read its sequel, the celebrated New Moon. Nevertheless, Walter has watched a PBS documentary on the Mormons and, in a moment of unforgivable weakness, has even met (only once) with LDS missionaries. Both experiences, he feels, were enough to acquaint him with Mormonism, enough to help him see deeply into the Mormon subtexts of Twilight, one of the few works of fiction (he’s sure) written by an actual Mormon.
So Walter begins drawing parallels (drawing upon Wikipedia when necessary). During their visit, the missionaries had said something about chastity, so Walter suddenly understands why no one has sex in the novel. He also sees a connection between Twilight’s apparent lack of gay characters and the LDS Church's well-publicized position on Prop 8 in California. (Could there be any other explanation?) Then there's this quote he found in the book of Second Neephee! Suddenly he knows why Meyer's vampires glow.
Within a week, his brainstorming session comes to an end, and he is very proud of the “revealing connections” he has drawn. Obviously, under the black-light of critical scrutiny, Twilight glows with trace evidence of Mormonism. By the end of the month Walter has a conference paper ready. He has even coined the phrase “neo-Lamanitism” in reference to Meyer’s portrayal of Native Americans.
Don't get me wrong: significant Mormon subtexts can (and do) exist in novels like Twilight and Matched. But critical approaches like Walter's are too often based on superficial comparisons, misinformed readings of Mormon culture, and irrelevant applications of long-defunct Mormon teachings. It's a lazy kind of scholarship that feeds off of sensationalism and good old fashioned shock-and-awe. Unfortunately, too many critics fall Chewbacca-like into its trap.
So, like I said, I will not be surprised if someone ends up drawing these kinds of parallels in Matched--especially if it takes off like Twilight. I imagine a few critics will look at the Society's emphasis on marriage, obedience, and group cohesion, and point out how Mormonism emphasizes the "same thing." Who knows, someone might even point out how the cover of the novel shows a young woman trapped in a bubble.
You know. A bubble like Provo.
Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, but I’m not sure this kind of criticism holds much water. I admit, when I first read the premise of Matched, I thought the Society sounded similar to how the LDS Church is sometimes characterized by those who look at it suspiciously, so I tried to read the novel that way. It didn’t last long. My connections started to stretch and tear like Hulk Hogan’s t-shirt. Since those kinds of readings annoy me anyway, I wasn’t too disappointed.
My point: Critics have to be careful when drawing parallels between Mormonism and the fictional worlds created by Mormon authors. Sometimes the parallels ring true. A lot of the time they don't.
Of course, Walter, I could be all wrong about Matched. It could be that we have something really subversive here from the author of several otherwise faithful LDS novels.
But I doubt it.