Thursday, June 9, 2011

Review: Divergent by Veronica Roth

This summer I've decided to get caught up on my young adult literature as a means to make recommendations to my students next year and to see what I might be able to use in class. I came across this book at my local bookstore, but since I was short on cash, decided to borrow it from my library before making the investment. I'm actually glad I saved the money.

The premise of Divergent is a good one, however, its execution was, well...rather lacking. The book is set in Chicago sometime in the future. Society has been restructured and upon their 16th birthday, people are grouped into five factions based on an aptitude test that is meant to display whether their primary characteristics are honesty, bravery, selflessness, peacefulness, or intelligence. A few individuals display multiple tendencies, thus making them "Divergent," which is seen as a threat to the society. On her 16th birthday, the protagonist, Beatrice ("Tris") Prior is found to be Divergent, but hides it and joins the faction that dedicates itself to bravery.

The story itself is fast paced and flows well, but I repeatedly found myself thinking "Oh, I've read this scene before; it's in Hunger Games" (Suzanne Collins' very good trilogy).

And that's where it all falls apart. There are far too many similarities to Collins' work, and it ended up pulling me out of the novel more than once. While I don't mind works that are somewhat similar to one another, when the similarities are so close to make the second novel seem derivative, that's where I begin to take issue. Like Collins, the protagonist of Divergent is a 16 year old girl who becomes an enemy of the state after becoming something of an expert in armed (and unarmed) combat after previously leading a relatively obscure home life. In both novels, the female protagonist has to rescue the boy she has come to care about (a bit of a reversal on the "damsel in distress" theme). However, Collins pulls it off better and more believably whereas Roth's male character/love interest falls under the sway of the established order with a simple injection, and his too soon rescue is a bit of a letdown.

Another issue I had with the novel is that Roth incorporates religion into the novel, but too little, too late. Aside from a passing reference to her family saying grace before meals and a poster on the wall of her instructor/boyfriend, God does not enter into the picture until page 438 (the novel is only 487 pages long), yet Roth seems to want her character to have some deep and meaningful connection established. To illustrate: Tris and Tobias (her male counterpart) have been captured. Tobias has been given the injection and, now under control of the antagonist, is led away to become a part of the conspiracy to overthrow the established order. Tris, who has been shot, is placed in a glass tank that will fill with water as part of her execution (why is it no one ever chooses to just shoot their enemies and get it over with??), which references an earlier incident in which she was involved in an identical, chemically-induced, mental simulation meant to trigger fear:

"I breathe in. The water will wash my wounds clean. I breathe out. My mother submerged me in water when I was a baby, to give me to God. It has been a long time since I thought about God, but I think about him now. It is only natural. I am glad, suddenly, that I shot Eric in the foot instead of the head." (p. 438)

This particular passage jolted me right out of the story. The blatancy of the symbolism was a cold splash of water directly to the face. And why wait so long to introduce God and Tris' spirituality? Considering all that she has been through before, including this exact scenario, why would she think of God now? (Not to mention the editing error of not capitalizing "Him" as is accepted.)

Divergent showed great promise, but unfortunately, it is a promise unfulfilled. This is not to say that Divergent is a terrible novel. It isn't. There were plenty of times I found myself drawn into the story and enjoying it. In fact, fans of the Hunger Games trilogy may enjoy this since the two stories are so much alike.

Unfortunately, it was far too derivative for my taste. I can deal with stories that are similar to one another; I dislike stories that are simply mimetic. As was the case with Terry Brooks' Sword of Shannara, which I read shortly after reading Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. To this day, I have no interest in reading further in the Shannara series, and I'm not sure I see myself finishing this one either.

From Katherine Tegen Books (a division of HarperCollins Publishers) and available at your local, independent bookstore. (Shop independent and shop makes a difference!)

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