Summary: Tally is counting the days until her sixteenth birthday when she will finally be able to undergo the operation that will make her pretty. She’s been playing with the computer program to decide exactly what she wants to look like after the doctors have smoothed her skin, sucked away her fat, and made her the perfect height. She is also dreaming about being with her friends again, who turned sixteen and pretty first and have not spoken to her since they moved to New Pretty Town; probably the perpetual parties have distracted them. But then Tally befriends Shay, a girl exactly her age who is not sure at all she wants to be made pretty. When Shay runs away on their sixteenth birthday, Tally is told she cannot become pretty until she finds her and brings her back. She has two choices: betraying a friend and getting what she’s always dreamed of or facing the fact that her society is not quite as beautiful as the government wants her to believe.
Followed by Pretties, Specials, and Extras.
Review: I avoided this series for years, for some reason under the impression that the books featured petty teenage dramas about who was attractive and who was not and the discrimination that could result from society’s rigidly defined ideas of beauty. In case anyone else thinks the same, let me reassure you that they are not. Uglies is actually set in a future dystopia, and the drama comes from chase scenes and confrontations with the government’s special forces, not from cliques and catfights.
The theme of what constitutes true beauty is present, however, and Westerfeld does a good job of incorporating character discussions about inner vs. outer beauty, changing concepts of beauty, and the dangers of everyone’s trying to be the same. Interestingly, however, the idea that people should not try to look a certain way is not the main argument of the novel. In fact, Westerfeld partially undermines this interpretation when he reveals (spoiler warning!) that the government is altering people’s brains in addition to their bodies. They are forcing people to think and behave in a certain manner. The fact, then, that the people in New Pretty Town all look relatively the same—same full lips, same big eyes, same height, and same weight—is unimportant because their changed bodies are not the cause of their cause of their shallowness. One could imagine that it would (almost) be fine for them to undergo the operation to become pretty if the government would just leave their brains alone. This makes sense because obviously having large eyes and clear skin cannot make you a clueless, neglectful, or superficial person—but the beginning of the novel truly does set the reader up to believe becoming a prettier person somehow substantially alters personalities for the worse.
Of course, the government was able to physically alter people’s behavior only because they first mentally conditioned them to believe that there was only one right way to look. Uglies, then, functions as a cautionary tale about what can happen when individuality is eliminated—and how someone might convince an entire society to give up their individuality willingly.