Saturday, June 8, 2013

Book Review: Divergent (Book one in a trilogy)

Divergent (2011), Veronica Roth. Hardcover, 487 pages.

Brief Summary: A girl struggles to find her place in a brutal dystopian society that separates citizens into personality groups with little allowance for individuality. For a more detailed summary, click here.

First Sentences: 
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.

My mother and father would not approve of my kicking someone when she's down. 
I don't care. 
She curls into a ball to protect her side, and I kick again, this time hitting her in the stomach. Like a child. I kick again, this time hitting her in the face. Blood springs from her nose and spreads over her face. Look at her. Another kick hits her in the chest. 
I pull my foot back again, but Four's hands clamp around my arms, and he pulls me away from her with irresistable force. I breathe through gritted teeth, staring at Molly's blood-covered face, the color deep and rich and beautiful, in a way. 
She groans, and I hear gurgling in her throat, watch blood trickle from her lips. 
"You won," Four mutters, "Stop." 
I wipe the sweat from my forehead. He stares at me. His eyes are too wide; they look alarmed. 
"I think you should leave," he says. "Take a walk." 
"I'm fine," I say. "I'm fine now," I say again, this time for myself. 
I wish I could say I felt guilty for what I did. 
I don't.

Writing Quality: 4/10 

Depth of Concept: 4/10

Rounded Characters: 4/10

Well-Developed World: 5/10

Page Turner: 6/10

Kept Me Thinking: 5/10

Overall Recommendation: 5/10


Writing Quality: 4/10. I almost gave this a 5. Roth is a promising young writer (she was maybe 22 when Divergent was published), but she's no wunderkind, and I can only hope that her craft improves as she becomes a more experienced writer. The prose reads like a copycat variation on something by Stephanie Meier (Twilight) or Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games). At times the protagonist Tris is just as clueless as Katniss in The Hunger Games, but thankfully her inner monologue isn't as tedious or lengthy or awkward. Roth explores the same sort of wish-fulfillment romance that Meier does, as in this moment:
"He tugs me closer, pressing his lips to each bird in turn. I close my eyes. His touch is light, sensitive. A heavy, warm feeling, like spilling honey, fills my body, slowing my thoughts. He touches my cheek."
There's no subtlety to it; it's just 50 Shades of Gray watered down to be PG-13. If you want to moon over a boy in the stupid vein of Jacob vs. Edward antagonism, then maybe it hits the spot for you. At least you don't get all the repetition with how sparkly the love interest is. But it's not great writing. Writers like Roth could probably stand to spend a little more time reading Jane Austen or Nathaniel Hawthorn to infuse more nuance and ambiguity into writing about relationships, at least to interest a reader like myself. Or, to point to a few novels written specifically for young adults: Natalie Babbit's Tuck Everlasting; Jane Yolen's Dragon's Blood; Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go (perhaps not written specifically as YA, but exceptionally appropriate for the audience).

Depth of Concept: 4/10. Roth's premise about factions based on personality types probably seemed like an interesting sort of allegory in her head, and I can't deny that it had possibility. It reminds me of the way different exotic races were described in Gulliver's Travels. But the divisions are simply too neat and tidy to feel practical, and never explored thoughtfully enough to feel really allegorical. Roth seems to want to complicate things with the concept of "divergence," but it's all a little muddled in terms of whether she's trying to make it out to be an exceptional trait or a potential universal one. "Divergence" seems like it could almost to be a synonym for "iconoclasm" or "rebellion," but Roth never really takes the concept as far as I would like, and seems only to make the uninteresting claim that some special people are a mixture of personality traits. Gasp.

At one point, someone says that "maybe there is some abnegation in everyone, even if they don't know it." Roth seems to want to have it both ways since her plot hinges on the idea that only a very special few are split between different personality traits.

In the end, I think the plot and romance aspects of the novel got in the way of Roth saying something more meaningful about the central conceit of the story. At every opportunity, for instance, Roth works to get Tris and Four together to accidentally touch hands and gasp in pleasure. A really thoughtful exploration of personality differences kinda takes a back seat to that stuff. Or take the final plot-point of the novel (I'll try to say this without spoiling). Instead of taking the opportunity to really explore the way regular people can become indoctrinated or break out of indoctrination, Roth uses a sci-fi themed cheat to allow her heroes to triumph in the end.

Rounded Characters: 4/10. I couldn't help feeling in a lot of situations and dialogues that these teens who beat each other to a pulp and stick knives in each other's eyes act a lot like twelve-year-olds. And that would be interesting if Roth was making a deliberate point about something in society stunting these kid's interactions with each other, but she's not. I think, in the end, she just couldn't quite capture some of the more nuanced and mature interactions that older teens have with each other. Here's this bit, for instance, as one girl mocks another's injuries:
"There goes your pretty face. Oh wait. You don't have one."
Ooh, burned. Really, this is ten-year-old relational aggression. A lot of teens in the story make jokes along these lines, but the humor is fairly bland and homogeneous stuff, and not really differentiated for each character. Additionally, the uninspired caricature of the "baddies" makes for conflict that is sort of paper-thin and obvious. They're virtually psychopathic, these enemies, and so it's hard to see them as real people. Game of Thrones this is not. Or Ender's Game, for instance. Orson Scott Card offers numerous bits of humanizing background detail even for an obnoxious bully like Bonzo, who beats on Ender every chance he gets.

There is an interesting thread where the rejected amorous advances of a mostly good-hearted boy lead him to make drastic and catastrophic choices...but it frankly felt a little out of place amidst all the rest of it. Lastly, the violence perpetrated by the protagonist is never sufficiently discussed in the novel, and it sticks out as a psychologically significant problem that is never addressed.

Well-Developed World: 5/10. I felt the "world" of Divergent was described with more consistent detail than the world of The Hunger Games. Part of that is because Roth kept her vision pretty narrow, focused on a single city as opposed to trying to describe an entire nation. It was a good move on her part, because it kept her ambition from outpacing her ability to describe it. Had she tried to go bigger, this probably would have gotten scored lower.

Still, there's plenty to get confused about. For instance, it's never clear what exactly the members of the different factions really even do, and that includes the Dauntless faction, of which our protagonist is a part. Maybe that's for a future novel, but there's no sense of what their tasks actually are, and this whole book is basically focused on them. Are they a police force? A military force? Is their purpose simply to jump out of moving trains, because gosh darn-it, someone's got to?

Or take, for instance, the explanation that anyone in the Erudite faction simply wants "comfort, wealth, and prosperity." Okay, fine. That's really ludicrously simplistic for a whole personality spectrum of individuals, but whatever. The thing is, it's at odds with the actions taken by that group in the story. It's also at odds with the way we might normally characterize the "academic" stereotype: someone who loves learning for its own sake.

Page Turner: 6/10. Divergent could stand toe to toe with The Hunger Games in most categories, but this is ultimately the area where it fails. There's no urgency to the plot, no sense of developing momentum. What's the point? What's at stake? More than two hundred pages in, and it still just feels like a training montage in which the protagonist learns to use weapons or punch someone else in the face. There are some gruesome moments of combat during the training, the same sort of stuff that made Collins' book hard to put down. Yay! Teens trying to kill each other! But in Divergent, there's not the fevered escalation of events that really made The Hunger Games a page-turner. Near the end of the novel, the pace picks up as full-scale assaults start up, but it's too little, too late. In most cases, it feels as though Roth used Collin's work as a template, but she just couldn't quite recreate the sense of urgency that The Hunger Games offered.

It's possible that there are those who might really enjoy the romantic aspects of the novel, and for them perhaps that was enough to keep them turning pages. I'm not immune to a romantic impulse; I just didn't feel like the dynamic between the love birds was particularly interesting.

Kept Me Thinking: 5/10. Roth's central conceit about conflicting personality groups and the way they interact did a reasonable job of getting me thinking. Unfortunately, some of the questions that I ended up asking couldn't be answered by the novel, and some of my questions emphasized glaring holes in its logic. 

Overall Recommendation: 5/10. There's not a lot to recommend this novel over a lot of other stuff out there. By the same token, it's not terrible. Where it really fails is in its ability to live up to the ideas that inspired it. There could be some interesting stuff here if only Roth could have treated it with a little more care. If you loved Twilight, you'll probably enjoy the romance in this novel. And if you loved The Hunger Games, you'll probably enjoy the dystopian society and a strong female protagonist beating others up. But it's in so many ways inferior to other sff books written for a similar young audience, whether Card's Ender's Game, Scott Westerfeld's Peeps, Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight or Garth Nix's Sabriel. Still, Roth is a young author, and it may be worth seeing what she can produce when she's got a little more experience.

Books To Compare: There's a rich tradition of classic novels set in a dystopian/post-apocalyptic world, whether 1984Brave New World, or Fahrenheit 451. Each has a lot to say about society in interesting allegorical ways that offer cautionary tales for us in our own lives, though Divergent doesn't quite manage the same. And in terms of a coming-of-age story filled with (insightful) teen angst, I'd much rather recommend a classic like The Catcher in the Rye or The Outsiders or Lord of the Flies or Jane Eyre over this. For more ideas, try plugging it in to What Should I Read Next?

Check out Divergent on Amazon.


  1. Yeah... I'll be skipping that.

    1. You won't be missing much. Since I've got a little girl and she's probably gonna be a reader, though, I figure it's worth testing out some of the books with so-called strong female characters so I can coach my daughter along with the best stuff.

  2. Yeah, I understand that, BUT
    I've already decided that if my daughter decides she wants to read Twilight, I'm going to let her, but I'm not going to waste my time pre-reading it just that I can say, "I wish you'd find something better." I already know that's how I feel about it. And there are plenty of older books that I already know are good and can suggest to try to dig through the piles of crap being shoveled around these days.

    1. I hear your "but," and I agree I probably wouldn't ban my daughter from reading any of these, but my "but" is also that if she's gonna read 'em, I want to be able to talk with her about them. And really, even though I might dislike one book or another, I suppose it's possible that for my daughter's specific development, a sub-par work of art may actually contain some message that would be useful for her. Not saying it would be in Twilight or Divergent, but...

  3. I can understand wanting to be able to talk with her about them, I suppose.
    As for the other, I spent my high school years reading a lot (as in everything) of Piers Anthony. I tried re-reading some of that in my 20s and, man, was it awful. But, at the time, I loved the heck out of it. So I'm not sure there's any need to talk to anyone about something that doesn't even aspire to the quality of Anthony. I think just encouraging higher quality reading will eventually win out over reading trash.
    Except, you know, I still like the Dresden Files.

  4. The concept of this book interests me, but your less than stellar rating makes me think I might be wasting my time in reading it.

    Tossing It Out

    1. There's plenty of other stuff I'd recommend first. But I suppose it depends what your taste is.

  5. I read Harry Potter. Loved it. Read the first Twilight. Hated it. Read the first in the Hunger Games series. Decent but won't read any more. This one, I'm going to pass on. Thanks for the kick ass review, though.

    1. And thanks for reading, Ryan. I didn't mind reading this because I want to become really well versed in the literature that my daughter might grow up to read, but it's true, I probably wouldn't recommend it as a place for anyone to start.

  6. I felt exactly the same as you regarding this book. It felt lonely being among the very very few who didn't enjoy this book so I'm glad to have you on board. :) I like the concept of this book but I thought its execution was way poor and all that romance was just too heavy (though thankfully without being gross). I was also disappointed that there was no real substance to this book - it seemed like the world was going well and then suddenly there's this war that came about just because we were at the end of the book and something had to happen.

    Still, I read the sequel as well (same opinion) and I'll probably be reading the final book of the trilogy.

    1. Yeah, I didn't love it. But honestly, I'm hopeful that Roth WILL write some stuff I like more; she's pretty young, and likely to improve with age. Right? I hope so. Anyway, though I don't think I'll jump to finish the rest in the series, I may still keep my eye on her.

  7. I'm featuring you on Friday. Just so you know.

    1. Hey, thanks Andrew! It's been awhile, but I'll be sure to check it out.

  8. The satire is not as sharp as that of The Hunger Games and the training scenes borrow heavily from the much smarter Ender's Game. But it's also stylish, tense and surprisingly pacy.