Book Review: Divergent, by Veronica Roth

It did not take me long to realize that Divergent, by Veronica Roth, was probably not the book for me. I am naturally a critical person, though I can happily and willingly suspend my disbelief for a variety of sci-fi and fantasy premises. But I could really and truly not buy into the faction system in Divergent, and that–among other issues–prevented me from losing myself in the novel and enjoying it to the fullest.

First, here is the summary from GoodReads:

In Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago, society is divided into 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). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is—she can’t have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.

During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles to determine who her friends really are—and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating boy fits into the life she’s chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she’s kept hidden from everyone because she’s been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers a growing conflict that threatens to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves… or it might destroy her.

Sounds cool, right? Yeah. But then you learn more about the factions system, and you realize there is just no way this could possibly work. And I guess that’s the point, as the reader comes to understand all is not well in future Chicago, with inter-faction tension boiling. But what did they think was going to happen if you arbitrarily divide people up and then focus on cultivating a single trait to the exclusion of all others? Who proposed this, and how the heck did they get everyone else to go along with a system so doomed to fail? How are these artificial divisions any better than divisions along race, political affiliation, gender, etc.? What about traits that don’t have their own factions, like loyalty? How can someone be honest without being brave, or be selfless without being peaceful? It was never adequately explained and it was a real thorn in my side. The world-building failed to convince me, and so I approached everything that followed feeling off-balance and a little cranky. Again, I love creative sci-fi premises, but I need to see that the work has been put into making the world seem logical. When compared to the world-building of A Song of Ice and Fire or Ender’s Game or, yes, The Hunger Games, the setting and atmosphere in Divergent feels very juvenile.

The two central mysteries (who is Four and what the Erudite are plotting) are so telegraphed from the start that they really weren’t mysteries at all. And I am no Sherlock Holmes. However, I imagine teens reading this are going to focus on and love the developing relationship between Four and Tris, which comprises a lot of the novel. For the majority of the book, actually, plot is relegated to the background in favor of training montages and kissing sessions. It certainly gets steamy at points, and I think Roth could have a real future in writing romance novels, as she has a good sense of how to draw out romantic tension. Romance is not really my genre, but I can tell that it was a strong point of Divergent. Since I prefer novels where the romance is incidental or a bit more organic, this was not a huge selling point for me personally. When it crops back up near the end of the book, the plot is a mash-up of standard dystopia themes–mind-control, evil rebellion, good guys on the run, etc.

Finally, something that I think is important to include, because it just straight-up angered me, was the author’s/Tris’ equation of ugliness with evil and beauty with good. This is reductive, insulting, and further propagates harmful societal attitudes about beauty. Why is it important for us to know that villain Jeanine has a spare tire and stretch marks on her knees? Who even NOTICES someone’s knee stretch marks, especially when you’ve been shot and are bleeding out on the carpet? How does this add at all to Jeanine’s character? The same goes for beauty. Tris’s refrain of “I’m not pretty” really grates, when she perfectly fits the Western standard of beauty: blond hair, blue eyes, thin, flat-chested. You know who else that describes? Kate Moss. If you’re going to be subversive and have your heroine break the model of traditional Western beauty, really BREAK it. Where are our heroines who are smart and brave and differently-abled, or fat, or scarred? Using “ugly” as shorthand for “evil” is lazy storytelling, and it is really hard for me to forgive a lazy author. (Also, what was with the obsession with describing people’s noses?)

There were some other issues, such as repetition–all I could think of when Tris mentioned yet again how selfish she was was how much of an Ayn Rand fan she must be–and two-dimensional secondary characters, but I think I’ve complained enough for now.

I feel badly that I’m being harsh on a book that has received so much love in the blogosphere, and let it be known that if you did read and enjoy Divergent, I’m happy for you. I did NOT set out to shit all over this book. I really wanted to like it! I’ve already mentioned my issues with expectations and hype for dystopian fiction, and this may have been another case of building a book up so much in my mind that there was no way the real thing could compare. At the same time, I don’t think I will be picking up Insurgent any time soon.

Bookwanderer Rating: Two out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: ” I am selfish. I am brave.'”

Other Reviews: The New York Times, Good Books and Good Wine, The A.V. Club

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