One thing I know about writing is that you're either a storyteller, or you're not.
J.K. Rowling is a storyteller. Neil Gaiman is a storyteller. Harper Lee, Terry Pratchett, Orson Scott Card, Cornelia Funke, Bruce Coville, Kate DiCamillo, Diana Wynne Jones, Stephen King, Patrick Rothfuss, Ann Patchett, Joe Abercrombie, Sarah Vowell, John Irving, Michael Chabon: all storytellers. Stieg Larsson used to be a storyteller, and J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, Brian Jacques, Philip K. Dick, Michael Crichton. And the classics: William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen (of course). . . All of them, storytellers. And it's not something you can learn, either. You either have it in you, or you don't. That 'it' is undefinable, but the closest word or concept we have for it is probably 'magic.' It's when you find that magic that reading becomes a compulsion.
Unfortunately, Ally Condie is not a storyteller, and all the interesting concepts and tragic love stories and frighteningly dystopian futures in the world can't make up for it. Matched feels like it was written next to a checklist of Writing Fiction: 101. It makes all the right moves, but it never clicks.
Probably the strangest thing about the book is the perplexing choice of first person point of view, in present tense no less. First person is always tough to pull off; you have to be a really good writer to do it, and your narrator has to be interesting enough to justify it, otherwise it doesn't feel like a story to me. It feels written, like someone was trying too hard. In my opinion, neither Condie nor Cassia (the protagonist) can justify it. Cassia is almost a non-entity. I do recognize this is part of the point; her arc is to realize a sense of individuality and in doing so, reject the perfection The Society has raised to her to think acceptable. However, it doesn't fully work. That same thing could have come across with a third person narrator, or even first person past tense. As is, I feel like I've come away from reading a 300+ page snapshot. I don't know these characters, and Cassia's voice remains bland and non-specific, without personality (despite the occasional over-the-top poetic image thrown in every once in a while to hammer home "the point").
By comparison, The Hunger Games (which the Matched series is being compared to, both sharing a similar dystopian concept and overall narrative arc) is narrated with first person present as well, and while it is a necessarily limiting choice for POV (it's hard to get a sense of history or atmosphere when everything is happening in the present), it mostly works in that case because Katniss's life is so tense, so full of movement and real danger, that present tense actually serves to heighten the atmosphere of danger and lends a weight and gravity to the action of the plot. I came away from The Hunger Games and its two sequels feeling that I knew who Katniss and Peeta were, where they came from. I don't get a similar feeling from Cassia or Ky. They remain curiously blank. Matched also suffers in comparison to The Hunger Games in terms of plot (and I do recognize that it may be unfair of me to make this comparison in the first place, but I find it's helping me to sort out my feelings for Condie's book). The focus of Suzanne Collins' book is the eponymous Games, and Katniss's struggles in that society. Her love life is secondary. Condie's heroine, however, is simply falling in love with the "wrong" person, and because it's in the spotlight, the romance between Ky and Cassia has to be absolutely believable. And while Ky is sufficiently developed, I don't think Cassia is. Not yet.
With all of that said, however, I am still interested in this series and will definitely be reading books two and three when they are published. I appreciate the themes that Condie is working with, and while her execution fumbles, the story she's attempting to tell is worth it for me, despite the lack of magic.