We start out book one with Tally Youngblood sneaking out of Uglyville to venture into New Pretty Town to visit her friend, Peris, who, at 16, just received the operation to become pretty. Tally is a few months shy of turning 16 herself and is envious of her friend becoming pretty before her. Tally makes it over to Peris only to find that he's somehow off, not quite the person she remembers him to be. Having set off a bit of a riot on her escape across the river she comes across a girl, Shay, who teaches her all about the people who live outside of the city and just what it means to be pretty.
The idea of this series is fabulous and also incredibly important, highlighting the differentiation in society between those perceived to be aesthetically pleasing and those who aren't. All people in the city are brought up to believe that being pretty is an evolutionary process and that it is biologically inherent to prefer a pretty face over a natural (ugly) one. At sixteen all uglies receive an operation to turn pretty and then migrate across the river to party in New Pretty Town. The life cycle in the city is: ugly, pretty, middle pretty, crumbly, with an operation necessary to go from one stage of life to another. These ideas I really loved and thought that in this at least the books were spot on, especially since during the operation to become pretty, the doctors also create small lesions on the surface of your brain, rendering you permanently dizzy so to speak and thus subservient in an uninterested way. Another quiet means of population control.
All of those themes were perfect and done really well. The thing that bugged me is the character development and actual story. Just before her 16th birthday she is approached by a doctor from Specials, a covert group within the city, telling her that unless she gives up the location of the rebels she will never be pretty. And so Tally goes from being an ugly desperate to be pretty, to meeting Shay and moving out of the city to the Smoke, a group of people living off of the land in the woods and becoming really gung-ho about life there. While in the Smoke, and she is there for an unknown period of time but can't be that long, she meets David, Shay's contact there, and of course they fall for each other. There wasn't a lot of basis for this, and after only a short time living in the woods David already takes her to meet his parents, former operation doctors and pretties. Tally didn't really win me over here, and neither did this romance.
Tally messes up by destroying her tracker necklace, the Specials find them and steal Shay, turning her pretty against her will. She figures the only way she can redeem herself is to give herself up and return to the city to have the operation so that David's parents can test a cure for the brain lesions. This leads us to book two, Pretties, and this book was, overall, more cohesive than the former but suffers from a lot of the same issues. Tally is a bubbly pretty, friends again with Peris who introduces her to his group of friends the Crims. Tally falls for the leader of the group who is disdainful of pretties and the operation and eventually manages to get cured at someone else's expense. On her journey back to New Smoke she gets lost and ends up in this bizarre social experiment that we find out is run by the city.
Let's take a minute for this. She meets a primitive group that lives inside a circular force field and finds out that they have lived there as far as they can remember. I really don't know why this was vital to the book other than to give Tally something to do on her way to finding David and the rest of the rebels. It was almost as if I was reading a side story that somehow ended up dropping Tally off back at the place she was suppose to be in order to get things rolling again. To be fair, I haven't read Specials yet, and I'm not sure that I will, so maybe this is mentioned at a later point. But to me it didn't make much sense other than to really drive home how twisted the people running the city are.
Tally finds David, but Shay, now a Special, finds Tally and turns her into a Special as well. And oddly enough Tally, at the end of the book, enjoys it. This seems to be a trend: every time Tally finds herself and a bit of ground to really stand upon it is taken out from underneath her and she finds herself absolutely loving her new lifestyle even if it was something that she would have despised days before. This I really didn't care much for as it's one thing to try and make a point about being pretty and ugly but the point is sort of being made moot by having her enjoy her forced transformation.
I did like these books because they brought up and discussed really pertinent ideas, but the execution wasn't quite there and weakened the overall story. They were quick reads for me and so I still recommend them, just keep an open mind while doing so.