Divergent by Veronica Roth

13335037Fiction — print. Katherine Tegen Books, 2012. 487 pgs. Borrowed from a friend.

Dystopian Chicago is divided and ruled by five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue — Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). Each year, sixteen-year-olds from each faction must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. An aptitude test helps guide their choice, but ultimately each person must make the decision between staying with their family or moving to a different faction better suited for their abilities.

After her aptitude test comes back as “divergent” (showing that she has an aptitude for more than one of these faction), Beatrice Prior chooses the one faction no one expected her to pick, renames herself Tris, and struggles alongside her fellow initiates to become a member of the Dauntless faction. But she still feels the pull of the family she left behind at Abnegation, the concern for the brother who chose Erudite, and the beginnings of love with one member of her faction, and it quickly becomes apparent that she and her world can no longer coexist as five factions.

My roommate handed me this book right as I was leaving for the airport telling me it would be the easy, enjoyable read I need as a break from grad school. I buried it into my suitcase pulling it only out at the end of my trip in expectation that the inevitable fight between the factions would help keep me awake through the last few hours of my transatlantic flight. It, unfortunately, did not work.

The heroine, Tris, is the standard heroine of every young adult novel today — nondescript, clumsy, doesn’t think highly of herself. Supposedly, writing the heroine in this way allows readers to imagine themselves in the scenario, but a dystopian novel demands more in terms of descriptions to sell the new world. Why are authors not writing heroines who believe in themselves, who have more to say about who they are than that they’re clumsy? I never knew a teenage girl who did not suffer from low self-esteem — myself included — and yet each of us could say something more descriptive about ourselves than that we’re clumsy or not a traditional beauty. And don’t get me started on the overused love triangles that plague young adult literature. (My roommate informed me when I returned the book to her that the resolution of this love triangle is the only reason why she read the next two books in the series.)

Roth’s novel has often been described as the next Hunger Games, but the more apt comparison would be to Lois Lowry’ The Giver. Both examine a dystopian society where people’s lives and careers are determined by an aptitude test, where the main character’s test comes back inconclusive and thus becomes the catalyst for change within the society. I could not shake this comparison will reading, which was a detriment to Roth’s novel, and the training scenes often compared to The Hunger Games lacked the heart found in Katniss’ journey.

Readers familiar with Chicago will pick up on the few references to what the city used to be — the old EL trains, Lake Michigan as a swamp — yet the novel is bereft of the sights, sounds, and smells needed to create a vivid image for the reader. I need to be able to imagine Tris and the rest of the dauntless jumping onto the old EL trains; instead, I was imaging a series of faceless people (ironically, how the Abnegation wants you to see people) jumping onto silver bullet trains without any context.

For me, though, the inability to understand and believe in the structure of this dystopian novel was its ultimate downfall. Sixteen-year-olds who fail the initiation into their new faction are forced to live in the slums and do menial work the rest of their life receiving only menial help from the Abnegation, who claim to value selflessness but allow people to live in squalor with minimal human interaction. Seems contradictory. Furthermore, the Abnegation run the government for all five factions because they are selfless, but shouldn’t that be the job of Amity since they value peace above all else? The problems at the core of this society seemed obvious; I’m surprised it managed to make it through (at least) a second generation with Tris.

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