Divergent by Veronica Roth
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I'd resisted picking this up, because I knew it couldn't possibly live up to the hype. I'd heard of it as the successor the The Hunger Games, a YA triumph, and other such hyperbolic descriptions. I wasn't tempted until my book group couldn't stop talking about it, and proposed an outing to see the movie, when it comes out. So I gave in to the hype, and gave it a chance.
It turns out my gut instinct was right. This is a pale imitation of other YA successes. I wanted to enjoy the story and characters on their own, but I kept running across logical problems with the world and its inhabitants that distracted me too much.
The world is a dystopian Chicago, where people are grouped into one of five factions: Abegnation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite. No, I don't know why there are three nouns and two adjectives; the book doesn't explain. People are raised within one of the five factions, but they go to a school until they're sixteen, at which point they're tested, and they can choose which faction to belong to for the rest of their lives. If they fail the initiation or don't choose, they're Factionless, and perform the menial jobs while living in poverty. Which faction they choose decides their eventual career paths, but only after they're initiated.
Beatrice, who goes by Tris once she makes her choice, comes up in the tests as Divergent, meaning she could go to one of three factions. She chooses Dauntless, because that's the only one with an exciting initiation. I'm sure there are character-driven reasons why she makes the choice, but damned if I know what they are.
The bulk of the book is her initiation, learning to be fearless and falling in love with a boy and angsting about whether she fits in. The number of times she "finally" feels like she fits in, only to hesitate paragraphs later, gave me whiplash. While I understand her struggle on an intellectual level, on the page, it was too inconsistent. Meanwhile, she has to hide her divergence, for reasons that aren't entirely clear until the ending. Even then, if she'd been up against any other villain with any other endgame, it wouldn't have mattered.
My biggest issue with the book is Tris's passivity. Her choice to join Dauntless is the only one that makes any difference, up until the plot shows up in the last 10% of the book. While she's learning and participating in events around her, she doesn't have any impact on them until the very end. Even then, she spends more time staring dumbly at people while they kill people, or are killed for her. She does kill one person, which, after her hesitation to dispatch another (and patting herself on the back for her choice), is bizarrely inconsistent. She could've wounded that person, to the same effect, and thinks little of her choice to go for the lethal approach.
The factions, themselves, also make little sense. Very few people are born with only one trait. And, if the argument is that they learn to show that trait, then why are people allowed to cross factions when they choose? Why are kids taught at school at all, if intelligence is valued only by one faction? And it was never clear how much mixing there was between factions.
This is a debut novel, and it shows. It was like watching a play where the backstage workers all wear gold lamé and move the set pieces around in the middle of scenes. I could see things being set up for the characters, rather than the characters acting on the world around them in an organic way. The world, itself, existed the way it did because that was what was needed to justify this story.
I'm told the second book in the series helps fill in a lot of that, but I'm not impressed enough by the characterization or writing quality to give it that chance. I need the first book in a trilogy to stand on its own merit, and this one doesn't.
I listened to Divergent on audio, narrated by Emma Galvin. I have no complaints about the quality of the narration. She did fine, for what she had to work with.
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