As I’m sure you’ve noticed, dystopian fiction has become a high-selling commodity, especially in the Young Adult department. In fact, anything with a touch of fantasy (though not too high – this generation of teens doesn’t seem to have a huge taste for elves and dragons) seems to be the most popular genre around.
I’ll be honest – I absolutely love any kind of unrealistic fiction. High fantasy, dystopian, science fiction, you name it, I’ll enjoy it. There’s something about it that holds an entertainment value that most other genres can’t compare to. Maybe it’s because fantasy allows the reader to escape into a world that is far detached from the stresses that we associate with this one… But that’s a discussion for another day.
I was first introduced to the Divergent series by Veronica Roth when I saw the movie preview for the film based on the first book, the namesake of the trilogy. I hadn’t heard about it prior to that, but the 30-second preview looked like something that I would enjoy. I picked up the trilogy in order to prepare myself for its release.
In order to fully discuss my feelings on the book, it’ll be necessary to give some preface on the story and setting. Divergent tells the tale of Beatrice Prior, a sixteen-year-old female who lives in a post-apocalyptic version of Chicago. In this society, all citizens are forced to take an aptitude test at the age of sixteen in order to determine what faction they belong in. There are five factions – Abnegation, the selfless, Candor, the truthful, Amity, the peaceful, Erudite, the intelligent, and Dauntless, the brave. Each of these factions contribute to a fully functional society in its own way; the Abnegation hold government positions as a result of their altruism, the Erudite work on developing new technologies, the Amity farm and produce food, and so on. The aptitude tests consist of a simulation where each person responds to various situations in various ways. These choices determine their faction placements. However, despite the placement given, each citizen has the ability to choose whatever faction they please in the end.
The book begins by immediately describing the daily scene of the Abnegation, the faction that Beatrice was born into. Each member wears nothing but grey-colored clothes, is not allowed to look into a mirror but on rare occasions, and must never show selfishness, including not speaking at the dinner table as a child and not showing curiosity about anything. The members make a special point to not self-indulge in anything that could be considered a luxury, eating nothing but simple foods and living in identical houses.
In the midst of this dreary, mundane environment is Beatrice, our protagonist. And of course, all is not well. Beatrice is panicking about the aptitude test because she does not feel like she fits into the Abnegation, and faction traitors are often completely disowned by family and friends.
For the sake of space, the brief version of the next hundred pages or so is that Beatrice takes her aptitude test and receives a very unusual result: she demonstrates character traits for three different factions – the Abnegation, the Erudite, and the Dauntless. Right away, the title of the book is explained: people who are able to manipulate the simulations in abnormal ways are titled Divergent. The administrator of the exam tells Beatrice that this is a very dangerous label, and to guard the secret with her life.
At this point, I was fairly intrigued. The idea of the factions was extremely interesting, though it most definitely borrows from the futuristic ideas of Divergent’s predecessors; I immediately recollected memories of the houses of Hogwarts and the job ceremony in The Giver. And while I was still anxious to see how this simplistic model of only five factions – and, technically, five human traits – would logistically work, my interest was peaked.
Here’s where it started to go downhill for me. Of course, Beatrice attends the Choosing Ceremony and makes the public choice of joining Dauntless, something that was overly foreshadowed through scenes that show Beatrice staring longingly at the Dauntless kids’ daring attitudes at school. And, not surprisingly, her brother, Caleb, joins the Erudite, despite his calming role in his family and his father’s hatred of the Erudite. The description of the stack of textbooks in his room wasn’t exactly subtle. The biggest issue I have with most novels is predictability, and Divergent was starting off on the wrong foot. Regardless, I was still relatively entertained, so I trudged onwards.
The entire middle section consists of Beatrice (hereby referred to as Tris, the new name she chooses for herself at the Dauntless compound) as she struggles through the initiation that all hopefuls must complete in order to become a true member of the Dauntless. All those that fail initiation become factionless, a demographic that is shunned by the rest of society, leaving them to fend for food and shelter with no help.
Here is where I will give Roth credit: she knows how to pack a punch in an action scene, and she’s not afraid to make you gasp or feel a little sick to your stomach. I like that. Some of the scenes in this section are powerfully written, and there’s a lot of vivid imagery. For example, in one passage, Tris goes zip-lining off the top of what used to be the Hancock building. This is undoubtedly my favorite scene in the entire book. Roth makes it so vividly real that for a minute, I swear I could feel the wind stinging my face and the sensation of weightlessness. Overall, Roth is excellent at evoking human emotions, particularly those of fear and shock. There were quite a few passages that got my adrenaline pumping.
But alas, as much as I love a story with entertainment value, that’s about where the praise stops. There are too many things that I have issues with to continue on without addressing them. First and foremost, I was sorely disappointed in the lack of development of secondary characters. There are so many that could have been far more colorful than they were – Christina, who’s talkative, bold, and unashamed, Al, who is so troubled and sensitive that he sticks out like a sore thumb, Peter, vindictive with no reason given as to why. I wanted to see growth and back stories, and I honestly think that readers would have fallen in love with them had it been supplied. Instead, in the mosaic of characters, the smaller roles are gray-scale while all of the vibrancy is reserved for Tris and Four.
Oh yes, Four. The sullen, mysterious love interest of our protagonist. Don’t get me wrong – I liked Four fine, and I’m hoping that his character will continue to develop in the upcoming books. But I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t sorely disappointed in the cookie-cutter role that he played. Four is volatile, quick to lose his temper, and is even described as “dangerous” by other characters. But of course, the minute that he is introduced to Tris, we find that he is enamored and shows his “soft side” and all of his secrets to her (after only a few weeks). There’s also a large reveal about his history (which I won’t spoil here) that anyone could have seen coming from a mile away. My main issue with Four is that he is, quite possibly, the most stereotypical male ever to participate in a YA love story. He’s dark. He’s withdrawn. He’s mysterious. And even though he treats Tris horribly in public half the time, she’s hooked on him.
Veronica Roth, are we going to continue to teach young girls that it’s worth pursuing the diamond in the rough, when all too often there’s only heartbreak and a damaged self-esteem on the other side? Are we going to tell them that it’s okay to pursue the challenge and brush off the abuse, ignoring characters like Al who are kindhearted, concerned, and bright, albeit a little clumsy? Who knows. Maybe I’m reading too much into a book that’s completely based on a fantasy anyway. All I know is that when a good third of the story is focused on the growing tensions between Tris and Four, I was sincerely hoping for a healthy, glowing, honest relationship. When you’re attracting a large amount of attention in the public eye, and you’re selling your products to young adults (primarily females) at a crucial point in their lives, I don’t think that’s too much to ask. You never know much weight your words will carry. Again, I haven’t read the other two books yet, so maybe I will be pleasantly surprised to see the result.
Let’s not forget our main character, either. I have struggled to sort out my feelings for Tris in the two weeks since I finished Divergent. On the surface, I genuinely like her. She’s witty, sarcastic, and intelligent – all things that were inhibitory to her as an Abnegation member. She seems real. This may perhaps seem like a silly statement, but I rather like the fact that Tris is so imperfect. Again, this is where Roth’s knack for materializing human emotion shines through. The mood swings and feelings that Tris has throughout the book are beautifully displayed, and they’re completely believable.
And as much as I want to leave it at that, I just can’t do so with a good conscience. In the character of Tris lies the largest, most crucial downfall of this book: she is special. Tris is Divergent. She is able to do things others cannot do. She is fully aware that she is not like the others. And boy, does she let you know it.
In fact, Roth basically knocks the reader over the head with it so many times that it becomes like a reflex. Tris does something with ease? Special. Tris knows something the others don’t? Special. Tris ties her shoe? Special.
This is my largest issue – if you are telling a story, I want you to show me things, not tell me things. If you want to demonstrate how brave and selfless Tris is, then describe something to me that will make me gasp at how reckless it is. If you want me to know that Tris is tough as nails, demonstrate that she is able to grit her teeth and sacrifice herself for the greater good of those around her. Don’t say that Tris “becomes accustomed to the pain” of the bullet wound in her shoulder approximately thirty minutes after she gets shot (seriously?). Don’t have Tris constantly repeat to herself, “I am brave. I am Divergent.”
Because at the end of the day, the most memorable characters are the ones that we can identify with. And while I just said that Tris seems to jump out of the pages, Roth fails to use this to move the plot along. Instead, things are spelled out for the reader, almost as simply as reading a picture book. If Roth would leave some room for readers to draw conclusions about the protagonist’s weaknesses and shining qualities, thus enabling us to see deep into the mind and spirit of this character, then this would have truly been an outstanding book.
I know I’m going to get critics who say that I’m taking a YA fiction novel way too seriously. And maybe I am. I was always that kid in high school that the English teacher loved, while the rest of the class was yawning and saying, “Who cares what the stupid blue carpet symbolizes!”
Here’s the main reason for my criticism: besides the fact that I thoroughly adore literature and hold things to a certain standard, there is a larger issue at hand. As stated at the beginning of this review, the sea of dystopian fiction is growing at an astounding rate. And I have personally read dozens of YA novels that had that crucial entertainment value for younger readers, but also contained enough mature matter and applicable life lessons to be more than appropriate for the adult reader as well. Divergent simply doesn’t meet that standard. Will it be successful? Absolutely. It already is. Will it be remembered as a classic? No. Not a chance.
When I analyze books now, I am doing so with the filter of my own aspirations. When I read a novel, I am picking out the parts that work and the parts that fall short, so that I can learn for the unsteady road ahead of me. The great YA authors of years past have already left some enormous shoes to fill. And in a world full of shallow fiction, stereotypical gender roles, and predictability, Divergent simply doesn’t have what it takes to rise above and shine like the flames of the Dauntless.