YA Weekend: 5 to 1 by Holly Bodger
Publisher: Random House Children’s (May 12, 2015)
Tiara’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Just when I come off a rant with some friends about how much YA novels have been getting on my nerves as of late, I find one that not only doesn’t get on my nerves, but it actually made me get all emotional toward the end of the story. Holly Bodger’s 5 to 1 is set in India in the year 2054. India, whose parents for years have chosen boys to girls seeing them as the more precious commodity, is now faced with a crisis of boys outnumbering girls 5 to 1. Girls are soon given to the highest bidder, but one city, Koyanagar, proposes its own solution from its matriarchs, a solution that would give every man a chance by holding a test that allows all boys to compete and win a wife. After their proposal is rejected, Koyanagar builds a wall and becomes its own country, allowing those who wish to leave one day to do so before their country is closed for good to the rest of India. In this new country, women are treated as the highest form of riches, but their lives are still far from being ideal, even in a society where men are cowed, ridiculed, and only valuable for producing daughters.
This story follows two teenagers seventeen-year-old Sudasa, a daughter of a wealthy family, who doesn’t want to be a wife, and eighteen year old Kiran (known as Five through much of the novel), a farmer’s son who doesn’t want to be a husband not even to a wealthy wife. However, their destinies, hopes, and dreams still intertwined in this beautifully, heartrending novel of two people who just want to be seen as people and not as their genders.
Each year a group of boys compete in various games of mind and strength to be chosen to be a husband. Sudasa has reached the age where she must take a husband, and Kiran competes because his father wants him to so that he can have a better life, but there are grander plans at work for him that are initially unknown to him. Sudasa begins to realize that the “games” are rigged, no better than what her grandmother claims happened outside the wall of their protected country.
Sudasa knows that this isn’t what she wants for her life, and she knows that, just as she feels like a prisoner, she doesn’t want to make someone her own prisoner by choosing a husband. However, no matter what Kiran thinks of Sudasa, he does see something more in her as the games go on, and Sudasa sees a kindred soul who wants to be free, a soul she wants to help free like herself. How can she do that if she chooses him to be her husband, especially when she must figure out how to run from her own destiny?
First, let me get this out the way for you YA romance lovers. This is not a romance, at least not in any conventional sort of way. There is a girl, and there is a guy. There are burgeoning feelings, but nothing that can truly be acted on in the society they live in, Besides, they’re strangers so they’re not completely sure of their feelings for each other in such a short span of time, and their feelings for each other may be more representative of what the other stands for in this fight against society. There’s no instant love here.
So, if you’re expecting two teenagers treading through hell and hot water because they just have to be together, this is not your book. If you’re expecting some happily ever after romance tale, this is not your book. That’s not to say that this doesn’t end promising, depending on your view as the reader (and I’m an eternal optimistic, so I feel good about what I believe to happen), but if you think you’re going to get two hot teenagers shoving their tongues down each other’s throats while yelling, “DOWN WITH THE AUTHORITY!”, you’re not.
And as much as I grouse about how romance is shoehorned into YA books because that’s what everyone expects, this is one I would not have minded it in because I feel it could’ve been done in a tasteful way. However, I feel it was more important that it didn’t happen as expected because there were far more important issues at play here than romance.
With that out the way, let’s talk about why I enjoyed this book. First, it was a reversal of roles with with men being seen as mostly useless if they couldn’t produce female heirs. Many are relegated to guarding the country’s walls or other more domestic or laborious tasks if they don’t win the games. However, women aren’t much better off. They have a better standing, but they’re bound to strict rules such as what foods are best for producing female heirs, whose blood will produce the most girls because this boy has many sisters.
Their country has seemed to regressed to simpler times. Cell phones and televisions are mentioned, but technology isn’t allowed inside of Koyanagar, so they aren’t aware of how India or the rest of the world actually fares. They only know what they’re told. Some of the older generation can remember cell phones and televisions, but only in memories of being young. They only know what the rulers of their societies tell them, and the society is founded on some anger for men, which isn’t completely unfounded. But anger has a way of become hatred and rage when not bridled.
The women of the society are still unhappy with their positions. They’re afforded better treatment, but most of them know that its a gilded cage for them. Still, while not exactly forced into arranged marriages, the games aren’t much better and put many men in the position to embarrass themselves in front of spectators. I thought this reversal of roles was very interesting. Often people like to believe that a society ruled by women would be a peaceful, benevolent one. For the most part this one is on the surface, but women play politics just as well as men, but with much (obvious) less bloodshed and much more deception.
Kiran’s initial strategy is not to win at all because he doesn’t want a wife. He doesn’t want to be just some man who’s used for possible female heirs he can produce. He wants to go home. While I repeat, this is not a romance. His feelings for Sudasa isn’t rooted in wanting to love her and take her away. He’s almost willing to submit to free her from a cruel fate of another suitor, but at the same time, he doesn’t realize she wants the same thing for him. She wants to free him. She knows having him as her husband, he’d be kind, but she also knows that would clip his wings. She wants something better for him.
I know some may try to accuse Kiran of “white knighting” for her just based on what I’ve said, but that’s not what it is at all. They have their place. They’re playing their separate parts with as little suspicion as possible, and even they don’t know know what they intend to do to help to other or if they can be a help to one another. They don’t get a chance to discuss this. These are just wishful thoughts of idealistic teenagers who want to do something good for someone they feel deserves it.
There’s some care there for the fate of the other, but mainly, they understand they have to make it out on their own. And if anyone is trying to be the “white knight” of this story it is definitely Sudasa. Both Sudasa and Kiran knows that life outside of Koyanagar may not be better, but they believe they’ll be allowed to be more than just a man and a woman whose only purpose is to produce female heirs. They’ll be allowed to be people, to have dreams, to live as they see fit. The ending of this story is what kind of made me get emotional because it leaves Kiran and Sudasa’s fate up to the readers.
Now, what I didn’t care for in this book is how vague everything seemed. There’s not much detail for most of the surrounding or people . Some of the clothes are described, but very simply. I would’ve loved more detail in this story. Some of the side stories that tied into the main story felt a little disjointed and out of place. I definitely see where Bodger was trying to go with some of these side stories, but they didn’t segue well into the main story. I didn’t like there’s obviously so much politicking going on behind the scenes and as I mentioned the society itself seems built on anger toward men, but we don’t really get to explore than beyond a short rant from Sudasa’s grandmother. I know a child wouldn’t know everything, but there was just something missing that I needed t make a true impact for me.
That might’ve made me give the book just a tad lower rating, but the way the story was told was just so beautiful. I couldn’t begrudge it for those things. I absolutely adored how Sudasa’s and Kiran’s chapters were told.
Sudasa’s chapters are told in free verse where you get lines like:
Have to wait my turn.
Have to follow the rules.
Have to smile like I agree.
Kiran’s chapters are told in prose:
The president is not at all like the powerful icon I imagined her to be. She’s more like I remember Amma: small and delicate with a sari that dances behind her as she walks. Of course, the president is clad in white, the color that shows eternal mourning of a lost child, while Amma never wore white. She wore reds and oranges and deep greens. Colors of celebration, of happiness. Perhaps she wears white now. Now that I am dead to her.
It’s kind of ironic how their chapters are told. Sudasa’s in a clipped tone that can’t always find its words. She loves poetry, but sometimes, it just seems more like she doesn’t know what to say about her situation, about her family life, about what’s going on around her. So, she expresses it in the simplicity of verse. There’s so much beating in her heart and mind, but it’ll only come out in short, powerful phrases. Kiran, on the other hand, is a simple farmer’s son, but his chapters betray a busy, intelligent mind, as well, one that is verbose and full of ideas and hopes for his people as well himself.
Still, I wished for a little more from this book. There was so much more impact that it could’ve made, but it was still a beautiful read.
Again, a review copy of this book was provided to me by Random House Children’s via Netgalley. All opinions stated here are my own. I would like to thank the author, the publisher, and Netgalley for providing me this opportunity.