The dystopian landscape is popular in young adult fiction. If it’s not vampires and werewolves, angels or fairies – it’s likely some future version of our world where society has run amok and children are often left to fend for themselves. The most famous recent example is likely Suzanne Collins’ beloved book, The Hunger Games. Veronica Roth’s popular novel Divergent has gained its own rabid fans and while I understand the book’s appeal, I didn’t like it as much as The Hunger Games.
Beatrice is sixteen. When you turn sixteen you must choose a faction: Abnegation (selflessness), Amity (peaceful harmony), Candor (frankness, honesty), Erudite (seeking knowledge) or Dauntless( fearless). Beatrice has grown up in an Abnegation household with her parents and older brother (by just a few months, so her brother, Caleb, must also choose a faction), but she has never felt like she belonged. Selflessness doesn’t come easily to Beatrice.
When I look at the Abnegation lifestyle as an outsider, I think it’s beautiful. When I watch my family move in harmony; when we go to dinner parties and everyone cleans together afterward without having to be asked; when I see Caleb help strangers carry their groceries, I fall in love with this life all over again. It’s only when I try to live it myself that I have trouble. It never feels genuine.
So when it comes time to choose a faction, Beatrice chooses Dauntless. Most of Divergent is concerned with Beatrice’s (renamed Tris) training at the Dauntless compound. It’s a bit like a reality show: candidates are put through a series of tests and the best man (or woman) wins. Those who don’t make it – because they either quit or fail – suffer worse fates. You can’t go home again so you’re factionless, left to scrounge for food or do the most menial jobs available.
Tris is smart, no question, but what was missing for me was the back story which Katniss Everdeen had in spades. Katniss is a beautifully written character, someone I rooted for and understood. Tris, despite her upbringing, adapts relatively easily to her new faction – learning how to fight and lie with relative ease. Perhaps Roth was thinking of the nature versus nurture debate: how much of what we are is because of environment and how much is because of biology?
My issues with the book are minor quibbles, though. Despite being almost 500 pages long, I breezed through it. Sometimes I felt like the plot was being served rather than unraveled in a meaningful and organic way. Characters turned up conveniently and were dispensed with equally trouble-free. I know many will argue that Divergent offers lots of talking points, but I didn’t leave that shattered Chicago landscape feeling all that inclined to revisit.
All that said, I know there will be students in my class who will enjoy the novel and I would have no trouble recommending it – even if only as a way to talk about characterization: it’s difficult to mourn for people you don’t feel you know.