My reaction to Veronica Roth’s widely popular New York Times best-selling YA turned motion picture was, to my surprise…Divergent. The very first chapter captured my attention, but the book as a whole failed to keep it. Was this an allegory for high school? Was Roth trying to depict the subtle power of cults over individuality? Or envision what a society of sociopaths would look like? Turns out, sort of and not at all.
To get the inevitable Hunger Games comparisons out of the way, Divergent is a coming-of-age story centered around a plucky (or should I say, dauntless) young woman from a grim dystopian future. Beatrice Prior has been raised all her life to practice self-denial in Abnegation, one of five trait-based factions that make up her society. At sixteen, she and all the youth her age take a virtual reality personality test to determine the proper House, I mean, faction, into which they should be sorted. The next day, they must choose wisely which faction to join; entering a different faction means leaving their old faction–and their families–behind, permanently.
Beatrice’s test comes up inconclusive, a very rare occurrence we’re told. The reason: Beatrice could conceivably belong in three of the five factions, making her (insert dramatic whisper) Divergent. I found this concept rather silly. Not being able to distill one’s personality down to a single overarching feature? Shocking.
After agonizing whether to do what is expected of her and stay in Abnegation, or betray her family and follow her heart for the first time in her life, Beatrice chooses Dauntless and a new identity, Tris. Too bad everything that happens afterwards turns her from a supposedly three-dimensional character into a one-shtick chick. Upon arriving in Dauntless-land, we get this long hazing montage that eats up three quarters of the novel. New initiates must regularly pummel each other to the not-quite-death to prove their worth before they can officially join up. While Tris and her fellow initiates come equipped with top of the line Hollywood plot armor to protect themselves from all the harm they inflict on each other, I found it strange Tris rarely paused to question or rationalize what’s happening all around her, even though she’s just entered a cutthroat world where kids are expected to beat each other senseless. She’s mainly concerned about proving she’s dauntless enough to belong in Dauntless, and exploring her budding feeling of lurv for Four, her Dauntless instructor, whose treatment of her runs hot and cold, but only because he also lurvs her and is trying to protect her.
I guess the other Hunger Games similarity is, there’s a lot of violence–a lot. Roth crams her chapters with beat-downs and bullying and near-death experiences, which would have been fine if it shaped or developed Tris’ character or thinking in some way. But that’s where Divergent’s brand of violence diverges from the Hunger Games’. Whereas Katniss internalizes her actions in the Games, Tris seems removed from what’s happening around her. For example, when Roth writes in two sexual assault scenes that read like preludes to rape, and the betrayal and subsequent suicide of someone close to Tris, and her reaction each time doesn’t even carry over to the next chapter, the violence feels both gratuitous and empty. We already know Dauntless is a brutal place, so why overload with traumatic topics like rape and suicide if you’re not going to treat them with sensitivity and thought? It just makes these scenes feel cheap and gross, like they were meant to prolong and add shock factor to spice up the story.
Also problematic–why does Tris keep doing things that reveal her Divergent status (like manipulate the fear factor simulation in round two of Dauntless training–supposedly a dead giveaway for Divergents), especially when she is warned by several trustworthy people not to? Why does all of the dialogue sound like it came from the same person? Why is it peppered with ellipses and redundant and devoid of personality?
Why would anyone want to live in Dauntless over being factionless? To be factionless is supposedly a terrible thing, but we are not told why. (Is this high school?) Nor is it clear why anyone in Tris’ world would be okay with living in these restrictive factions. There’s a lot of back story and unanswered questions that, presumably, will be answered in the sequels, but it’s cheating to gloss over foundation-building facts now just so there will be more to talk about later. No matter. The flaws in book one have left me unwilling to return for round two and three.