You have a choice about where you will spend the rest of life. You will devote yourself to a virtue, an ideal, one that is greater than your family or the friends you knew growing up. You can choose to devote yourself to bravery, to honesty, to selflessness, to learning, or to kindness. And whichever one you choose will determine how you live the rest of your life. You will spend it in one of five factions: Dauntless, Candor, Abnegation, Erudite, or Amity. And you choose your faction at 16.
I came into this story with a prejudice against this very setting. It sounded far too silly and over the top to be believable- though I was able to swallow the Hunger Games at least partially, so I really shouldn’t be complaining. I think I had less of an initial struggle believing The Hunger Games because killing people for entertainment isn’t exactly unheard of, and the structure of the reality program was also familiar. But I didn’t have any such parallel comparison for the society that was in place in dystopian Chicago.
Yet having read it, I think this setting works better than that of The Hunger Games for one simple reason: after only a few generations, this unusual system is already collapsing.
I don’t think I could have believed this book otherwise. If this had been an established society, with many generations behind it, I think I would have put the book down or dismissed it completely. But Roth did something that I feel is unusual for this kind of setting- she made her society a fledgling one, one that is still trying to get its feet off the ground and not doing a very good job. If she hadn’t done this throughout her story, I think it simply wouldn’t have worked. It’s obvious that human beings simply can’t live devoting themselves solely to one virtue and one ideal, and while that message is rather anvilicious, I thought it was actually used to fairly decent effect here. I think throughout history there’s always been an urge to compartmentalize people, whether it be from race, culture, or country of origin, and as we go further on into the future, it may not be a stretch to imagine that someone will pitch the idea of grouping human beings according to the virtues they most embody. Which on the face of it doesn’t seem like a bad thing. In fact, I went to a YA panel where Veronica Roth spoke about the writing of this story, and she said that she initially wrote it imagining what she thought would be the perfect society. It was only as she delved deeper into the story that she realized how nightmarish that way of living would actually be.
So in case it’s not very obvious, I found the setting to be the most interesting part of this book. The characters were a mixed bag. I think it’s apparent in the characters that this is Roth’s first book, since many of the minor characters are rather hard to distinguish and some of the villains aren’t very nuanced or subtle. And I had many mixed feelings about the main character. She’s very unlikeable in many ways- I found myself wanting to smack her upside the head more than once for her constant self-absorption and reckless plunging into various bad situations. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to hate her because her actions and reactions to various difficulties were almost exactly the same as mine at the age of 16- her pettiness, her complaining, her occasional flares of temper that sometimes served her well and other times made her look like a brat. It was rather eerily similar to how petulantly I acted on occasion at 16. I’m not sure what this says about my younger self- but out of sympathy points, I couldn’t hate Tris. Hell, I’m only four years removed from 16. I can relate to how frustrating it is to be figuring yourself out, especially if your life is as filled with upheaval as Tris’s is.
As for the obligatory love interest Four- I found him rather boring, though I think he has potential to be interesting as the story goes on. And it’s really refreshing to not have a love triangle as the main center of conflict, especially when there are far more important things to be worrying about, like the plot.
As for that plot… it wasn’t terrible. But again, I think you could tell that Divergent is Roth’s first book; some of the threads just didn’t quite come together. Almost the entire first half of the book is devoted to exploring Tris and her struggles as she tries to determine how to make Dauntless initiation, and then in the second half, a plot to do battle and take over all the other factions comes to light, and it feels really jarring, like Roth meant to be dropping hints throughout the story and they just didn’t quite come through correctly. That said, I did admire what she did with this second plot- it took some turns I wasn’t expecting in the slightest, and it did get me to tear through the last few pages of the book to see what happened. I’m very curious to see how Roth handles the story in the next book, and whether she can improve on what she started in Divergent. She definitely has grabbed people’s attention- the sequel Insurgent, which came out earlier this month, is number 24 on Amazon’s top 100 as of this writing, and the reviews are, for the most part, very good (as of this writing, there isn’t a single one-star review). So with that in mind, I’ll be checking out the sequel, to see if she can finish what she started. I’m curious to see how she’ll explore the different factions breaking apart, and what themes she’ll pursue as Tris begins to realize that human beings cannot live in neat little boxes that delineate their virtues.
(For the record, my faction was Candor. Yes, I had to check. And then tell the world the answer 🙂