Book Review: “Divergent” by Veronica Roth

Hello to all my … loyal … readers! Wow, it’s been a long time since I blogged. I went from doing a post a week, to a post every two weeks, to … a post a month … well, at least I’m writing one now, right? That makes up for it, doesn’t it?

Well, anyway. Last month when I was in France, I took it upon myself to read two of the most popular books of the year: DIVERGENT and INSURGENT, Books 1 and 2 of the Divergent series by Veronica Roth. They’re young-adult dystopian novels, sort of in the dangerous, enigmatic tradition of the Hunger Games but with a very different setting and worldview.

So, we’ll start with DIVERGENT.

DIVERGENT is the story of sixteen-year old Beatrice Prior as she navigates and combats a post-apocalyptic society that has rebuilt itself in the hollows of the former glory of Chicago. Beatrice is born into the Abnegation “faction”, which is one of five partitions of society that each perform different administrative tasks, value different personal characteristics, and accept different people into their fold. When she decides to abandon her Abnegation for Dauntless, the faction that values courage above all else, she finds herself thrown into a life-or-death tryout system. If she proves her bravery, fighting ability, and determination, she will be accepted into the faction. If not, she will be cast out to live on the streets, without a home, with the “factionless” who have left or been rejected from their factions. As she navigates the pitfalls and glories of her new faction, Tris – she shortens her name to sound more badass – discovers that the system itself is crumbling, factions are turning against each other, and war is being prepared.

The factions are divided up based on the values of the individuals who comprise them–Abnegation believes in selflessness, Dauntless prizes courage, Erudite believes in intelligence and learning, Amity loves good-will and friendship, and Candor values truthfulness above all other things. At age sixteen, each young member of society takes a test to determine which faction they belong in, and then they are allowed to choose where they will live for the rest of their lives. When Tris receives the results of her own test, she is told that she’s not a proper member of any of the factions–she is what’s called Divergent, meaning (according to Veronica Roth) she has the characteristics to belong to multiple factions. In my opinion, it just means she can think for herself.

My biggest problem with the book is that I fail to understand how such a system of government could ever have come into existence in the first place.  It’s not that the system is flawed from the very beginning – it’s that it seems impossibly unlikely that anyone would ever think it was a good basis for society. It’s the kind of simplistic worldview that a pre-adolescent child would dream up, and it requires such a compartmentalized view of human nature that I cannot understand how any rational adult would ever have bought into it — let alone decided that it would make a good basis for government. Perhaps the book can be thought of as one giant thought experiment, but I’m not interested in thought experiments that have little to no bearing on the reality of human nature, and the reality of human nature is that people are far, far to complex to be compartmentalized based on such characteristics as “truthfulness” and “bravery”. It doesn’t seem possible; it doesn’t seem relevant.

This glaringly large example of unrealism aside, the characters themselves are inspiring, authentic, and very readable. Ultimately, Tris herself is a compelling character, a wonderful example of what it means to be courageous in the face of danger, but the true star of the show is the character Four. Four isn’t his real name, it’s just a nickname, and a really sweet nickname at that. Four is quiet but deadly, strong but with visible, evident weaknesses that he actively fights against and triumphs over. He is a mystery throughout the majority of the book, but as he and Tris get to know each other and the romance shines through, Four captures the spotlight. Where Tris can occasionally be unsympathetic and somewhat frustrating, Four is always believable, always sympathetic, always captivating. Where Tris falls short, both as a character in the book and as a product of Roth’s writing, Four is always perfect, always strong, from a personal and a literary standpoint. It’s almost worth reading the book just to read Four.

On the side, Christina and Will, who end up being Tris’s friends as they go through Dauntless Initiation, are fun and enjoyable to read about. Uriah, Marlene, and Lynn, who were born into Dauntless but are going through Initiation at the same time as Tris, are always funny, free-spirited, and do quite a bit to inspire me to envy the Dauntless lifestyle. Roth has created a vividly realistic dynamic between the group of teenagers as they compete with each other for slots in Dauntless faction, and the tensions and competition brings out the best and the worst in each of them. It’s almost like Roth was once a teenager herself.

Linguistically, I will give Ms. Roth credit. Her books are far more descriptive and well-worded than, say, The Hunger Games. Her word choice and diction can get repetitive and phrases definitely start to feel overused by the end of the book, but her sentences are interesting and varied. I won’t say she comes anywhere near Rowling or Tolkien, as far as my fiction-writing idols go, but at least the language is fluid and reads easily.

Ultimately, I’m not sure I’d recommend that anyone read DIVERGENT on its own merits. The society is too strange, too unreal, Tris is sometimes too strange and unknowable, and the writing just isn’t quite enough to carry it. But the good news is that INSURGENT – which book review will come later this week – is more than worth the effort. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say that Divergent mostly just feels like a warm-up round, a practice book, for Roth, and she really gets into the swing of things with Insurgent. I’m not going to wait in any lines for Book 3, when it comes out, but it’ll definitely be on my Kindle. (Here’s where you can get it on your Kindle, too.)

Check back later this week for a review of INSURGENT! Happy reading!