My rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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.
In the YA book world, 2011 is definitely shaping up to be the year of the dystopian. With the popularity and acclaim of Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games trilogy, the young adult publishing world seemed to explode with all kinds of ideas for dystopians about oppression and chaos -- and publishers were all the more willing to oblige them due to the proven success of The Hunger Games.
One of the more hyped offerings, Divergent by Veronica Roth, has been gaining more and more pre-publication buzz each day, especially since the news that Summit Entertainment had optioned the book for film adaptation even months before the book's release date. Never mind that a mere peek at the Goodreads page for the book shows a bevy of four- and five-star reviews. Divergent just seemed to need to be read to be believed -- and read I did.
Truthfully, I don't think the quick comparison to The Hunger Games does Divergent any favors except to build hype and expectations among readers. However much it's a great tactic for marketing, I personally don't know if this book should even be referred to as a dystopian since the label hurts more than helps it, giving the idea of one thing to the readers and offering something a little bit different with the story itself.
Let me explain: I have a set idea as to what, for me personally, a dystopian is. YA dystopians seem to have an identity crisis at times (something Vinaya spoke about here) where they're just so intent about illustrating some kind of suffering or shock factor hook that they lose the true meaning of a dystopia: a world that has descended from order to chaos, one where what once were nightmares and dark musings of past times (i.e. usually our own modern days) are now common pieces of society, even to the point where rights or privileges of the people have been abolished and replaced by 'what is deemed right and fair.'
Now, back to the case of Divergent: yes, it certainly has hints of dystopian tenets. . .but strip the layers of the story away and what do you have? Is it really a true dystopian, the kind that makes us fear for our own world because we see the problems and warnings present in our own time and place? Or just an action thriller with dystopian elements? Honestly, Divergent is an adrenaline-kick, shock-factor-enthusiast, and action-centric kind of book first and foremost; the dystopian undercurrent is mostly for show, at least in this beginning installment to the trilogy.
For being labeled a dystopian, the world-building behind the story leaves a lot to be desired. Though we are told that the five factions resulted from a 'great peace' following a devastating war, the nature and state of the world as a whole is a big unknown. Chicago is the focus, front and center, but any reader must wonder, "What about the rest of the United States? And the world itself?" Roth describes her world sparingly, giving only some modern downtown Chicago landmarks scene time to ground her world; one must wonder if the sparseness of setting is a sign of intentional withholding of information or lack of planning and fleshing of the story's world. (Personally, I hope it is the former.)
But all of those concerns of mine started to fade into the background as I continued to read. Though the flaws are many (the length, unfortunately, being one of them), Roth doesn't fail to draw readers into her story and make them feel compelled to keep reading just to see what happens. The first one hundred and fifty pages were a struggle for me, no lie, but then it got easier to accept the book for what it was instead of wishing for more of what I thought it could be. The most discernible problem for me was Beatrice, who was a difficult heroine to grow to like since she started out so judgmental and harsh to the point that she was a bit unrelatable. Then her 'change' seemed to come much too soon, but I was glad for it since she eventually became a bearable (though, at times, still not particularly likable) heroine.
The novel's plot doesn't start to come together under the last one hundred or so pages, but I have to appreciate the character relationships that grow within the story. However much I was ready to ride them off in the beginning, the characters grew on me (sometimes in spite of myself), and I really started to care about what was happening to them and around them. When I start off with questionable feelings towards a book, I don't often change my mind. . .but, with Divergent, I eventually found myself swayed.
In the end, what struck (and stuck with) me most about the novel overall is this: the underlying theme of morals and their importance in the story. The factions themselves are representations of things valued and praised within the Bible: selflessness, bravery, honesty, knowledge, and peace. (I am not taking liberties by assuming Roth used the Bible as inspiration for her world; she herself has not hidden the fact that she is a Christian.) Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised by the moral aspect of the novel, and it gave the story some of the depth I had been craving all along. Let it be known that, at its core, this novel is about choices, priorities, and beliefs. This tendency isn't a flaw in the story, however; rather, I think it helps to enhance and differentiate a book that would otherwise have been lost in similarities to its popular predecessor.
(I will also give Roth credit in this respect: she could have easily had her factions act forever positively in regards to their specific traits, but instead she does not shy away from casting all the factions in gray lights. All the characters are ambiguous figures, mostly neither hero nor villain but rather 'flawed human,' and that in itself is refreshing in a YA landscape of 'goodies and baddies.')
Though this novel contains a rocky and lengthy start that takes away a bit from the impact of the novel as a whole, the story does eventually 'get there' where you're invested (even if only to see where everything is going). It took a while for me to care, but other readers who are more action-oriented than I am may look at this novel with more patience and appreciation. As it is, I'll be reading the sequels to see how the story continues, but I stand by my words that this novel is much more appealing when it is showing off its games of ambiguity and morality than its plays at brutality and violence.
My conclusion: Divergent is a free-for-all book dependent entirely on a reader's specific tastes and expectations. There's just no way to go other than reading it for yourself and deciding your own stance on it. Like it or dislike it, you will definitely be able to admit one thing, at least: it's a book that's going to lead to a lot of interesting discussions among readers.