Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Book Review: "Divergent" by Veronica Roth

"They don't want people to listen, they want people to agree[...] And you shouldn't bully people into agreeing with you."

~Divergent by Veronica Roth.

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.

Debut author Veronica Roth bursts onto the literary scene with the first book in the Divergent series—dystopian thrillers filled with electrifying decisions, heartbreaking betrayals, stunning consequences, and unexpected romance.

I always say I don't read much YA fiction-- and that's true-- but it seems that every year one YA title manages to captivate me-- and this year's book is "Divergent" by Veronica Roth.

Dystopian themes seem to be fairly hot in YA fiction but "Divergent" doesn't spend a lot of time dealing with the end-of-the-world aspects of the story. The collapse of society as we know it is the set-up, but what really impressed me about this book was the way Roth takes topics that are very common in YA fiction, like the conformity of cliques and finding one's individuality, and giving them uncommon depth.

We don't know what precipitates the decline of modern civilization, but the solution presented in "Divergent" involves dividing people into groups based on their most prominent personality traits with the intention of creating the ever impossible Utopian society. As always happens in this kind of scenario the various factions become suspicious of each other and the plotting begins.

Tris grows up largely unaware of the tensions that exist between groups because she has grown up mostly isolated within the faction of her birth. But she does know that she isn't sure she belongs in Abnegation even though she has spent her whole life there. When Tris does choose a faction (a spoiler I won't reveal here) she not only learns a lot about the political rifts that have developed between groups, but also that conformity to one's chosen traits is a matter of life and death.

When I first started reading "Divergent" I was tempted to try to compare it to other books. I looked at the factions that Roth describes and began to think Harry Potter. Are the Dauntless supposed to represent Gryffindor? I mused. But those comparisons fade as the depth of the narrative becomes clearer. What I liked best about Divergent" is that while each group could potentially stand-in for the cliques we remember from high school (the geeks, the jocks, the rebels etc.,) they are also very relatable to the adult reader as surrogates for the political jockeying and misinformation we see blasted out the cable networks everyday. The story quickly goes from just entertainment to a pointed reminder that it's not whether or not we're willing to challenge the assumptions of other people that matter, but whether we're willing to challenge our own. "Divergent" also had me tempted to make comparisons to "The Hunger Games" because Tris was such a strong character. But Tris is a fully realized heroine and easily stands up the best characters to show up in YA fiction.

"Divergent" isn't a perfect book. While the action is well paced there were a few times I was forced to admit that the confrontations between the heroes and the villains were very stereotypically written. One sequence in particular has that James Bond flavor of setting the scene in which the hero is put into a fairly silly, over complicated trap reminiscent of tying Bond to a table and aiming a laser at him-- while the villain walks away. Like that. I also wished that Roth had gone into some detail as to what led to the breakdown of society and how widespread it was as the story is set in Chicago and makes no mention of whether or not it is the only city left standing- but I do have hope that this part of the story may be expanded upon in the future.

But "Divergent" is one of those books that has such a huge emotional payoff that you don't mind the flaws in the narrative. Roth takes messages that are often inserted into YA fiction and makes them relevant to any reader. I loved how she showed that any kind of behavior, no matter how rebellious it seems, can be a type of conformity-- and how dangerous that is. And that making assumptions about people as a "type" makes it so easy to make them an enemy. Honestly, most adults I know need to be reminded of these things more than any teenager I've ever met.

I couldn't put "Divergent" down. It's just a very satisfying read that leaves you hungry for the sequel.

4 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Veronica Roth Website (Quick aside-- I just read that Roth is 22 years old! I am seriously impressed.)

1 comment:

Blodeuedd said...

That good..wow, ok seems like it could be a YA dystopia for me then