Divergent was just published in April 2011, and yes, it is another YA dystopian thriller. A few of my co-workers had read it and loved it (loved it!), and one insisted that I check it out. And I have to say – I’m very glad I did. I’ve just emerged from two straight days of reading (it would have been faster if I didn’t have a 6 month old to look after)… one of those marathons where I feel itchy and cranky when I’m not reading. I love when a book sweeps me away like this, even though it makes me grouchy or completely useless for anything else.
Ok, the story. I was actually not completely sold on the premise, as it seemed to be too overwrought when I first heard it. But I’m learning that there might be no such thing as too implausible in this genre. In this world, the people of the city (a future Chicago) are separated into five factions, each reflecting a virtue: Candor (honesty), Abnegation (selflessness), Dauntless (bravery), Amity (peacefulness) and Erudite (intelligence). Fair enough – but my mind immediately went wondered why anyone would do this. How does it make sense to organize a society in this way? Who does it benefit – and if it’s meant to be fair and functional, then is it really a dystopia? Moreover, the central point of the novel – that everyone is a mix of these virtues, or that they should be mixed, seems so obvious as to defy comment. I mean, shouldn’t a good dystopia point out something that’s wrong with our society? Take something that’s true of us today and exaggerate it? Or point to a path we seem to be on, and show how it could lead to evil? For example: destruction of the environment (Chrysalids, City of Ember, The Dirt Eaters); rule by a stifling dictatorship (1984, Hunger Games), or stifling people’s creativity and human spirit (The Giver and most of the above). No one has ever actually proposed dividing society up by virtues – so I wasn’t sure what exactly Divergent was a critique of. It must be just another grab at a crazy premise to get a book published, I thought.
Then I started reading, and within the first three pages, I pretty much forgot all my objections. The writing is great – tense and terse. The economy of language perfectly captures this character who begins as a member of the ascetic Abnegation faction:
“There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair.”
Immediately gripping – and as it went on, I realized that it doesn’t suffer from the same problem as many of the books I’ve been reading have. Roth doesn’t tell us who the character is, and what her hidden side is right away – she lets us discover it through details. And the same for the other characters. Usually we realize something before the main character does because of the careful placement of these clues. In some cases the giveaway is too obvious (as in the love story), but on the whole it works very well. It’s the old rule of showing not telling, and I wish more YA (and other) authors would remember it.
So the plot: the main character Beatrice is a sixteen-year-old member of the Abnegation faction, though she’s never felt selfless enough to completely fit in with her family or faction. At age sixteen, everyone in her society is tested to see which of the five factions they belong in – then they must make a choice about which one they want to spend the rest of their lives in. For some, this might mean leaving their birth faction and their families forever. But Beatrice is an exception – she is divergent, and displays the qualities of multiple factions: Abnegation, Dauntless and Erudite. She must now keep this dangerous secret and choose which of these faction she will belong to. Despite the pain of leaving home, Beatrice chooses Dauntless, and launches herself on a truly challenging path to become an initiate in a society that prizes bravery and danger above all else. To succeed, she must face her greatest fears, but always hide her true self.
And of course there’s a love story.
So there you have it – great action, great writing, great driving plot (the ending was a little weak: there were all the usual questions about how villans always manage to let the good guys slip out of their grasp), and fantastic characters. Definitely get this one if you are looking for a Hunger Games follow-up – so far it’s hands-down the best alternative I’ve read.