As Chebk discussed in her last blog, she and I decided to tackle Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy this month, what with the release of the second movie, Insurgent, starring Shailene Woodley and Theo James. Obviously Chebk will not be reviewing the rest of the series after her angry breakdown trying to get through the first book, so it looks like it’s up to me to review the rest of the series.
Divergent, Roth’s debut novel, describes a post-apocalyptic Chicago where society has been divided into five factions: Abnegation (selfless political leaders), Dauntless (brave soldiers), Erudite (the crafty intelligentsia), Amity (basically hippie farmers), and Candor (honest lawyers and the like, which, okay). At the center of it all is Beatrice “Tris” Prior, who, at sixteen, tests out as “Divergent,” which means she possesses multiple traits and is considered dangerous to the societal structure. To keep her results secret, she chooses Dauntless where she enters a star-crossed romance with her trainer, Four, and meets a lot of dangerous, crazy people. Also, she comes across an Erudite plan to start a war against Abnegation.
The premise is reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in the segregated factions of society, the sterility (if not necessarily the well-described structure) of 1984, the stark societal monotony of The Giver, and especially the tension and challenge of The Hunger Games, as we watch Tris start out on an important day of decision, then train and fight, much like Katniss Everdeen. Roth has stated that she was initially inspired by exposure therapy used in psychology to treat phobias and anxiety (namely forcing a person to literally face their fears), and group divisions (e.g. Hogwarts houses, armies in Ender’s Game, pleasure houses in Kushiel’s Dart, etc.)
Diversity, in this first book at least, is pretty thin. Tris, Four, and most of the families, friends, and faction members are undeniably white. There is Asian tattoo artist, Tori (played by Maggie Q in the movies; awesome), and Tris’s Dauntless friend, Christina (played by Zoe Kravitz; also awesome), but they are dots of color in a sea of white, straight, able-bodied people. (Okay, granted, someone does get stabbed in the eye, but we never see him again.) I found it ironic that in a world that Roth wants to stress the point of diversity, she doesn’t actually have the guts to play out how diverse characters would actually struggle within the system.
Since Chebk was actually supposed to write a single, coherent post on this book, I jotted down some notes as I read for her to pick from to make up a small section of her own post. That post did, however, devolve into some exquisite ranting, (which I applaud forever), but since I am supposed to provide the sane perspective, here are some of my notes on the first book:
-Roth writes her action scenes very well. They move smoothly and are genuinely exciting (unless when they are very silly, more on that in the other section).
-The best part about the different factions is when all the new initiates in Dauntless (from Erudite, Abnegation, and Candor) all make off-handed comments about their factions and the way they were raised and you really see the differences in mindsets.
-For a little too long Tris and Four’s romance felt like a Twilight thing, what with Four pulling an Edward Cullen and (SPOILER ALERT) cold-shouldering Tris after their first romantic moment. Know why it doesn’t last long? Because Tris punches Four in the face for being an asshole to her during training and sets the boundaries for their relationship.
-Later, there is actual talk about consent, limits for intimacy, and both Tris and Four’s fears about going into a sexual relationship as virgins. Also (SPOILER ALERT): no loss of virginity in the very first book. Whew.
-The System: Roth states that this system works because people are too afraid of war. With whom? Chebk touched on this a bit, but no external conflict is ever shown. Also, with that kind of thinking, Dauntless should (and could) just kill everyone and take over.
-The Test: It opens on a simulation that forces you to pick between a hunk of cheese or a knife without knowing why. Generally, if you pick the cheese you’re Amity or Abnegation, and if you’re knife you’re probably Dauntless. But what if you take the cheese over the knife to be really brave and overconfident? In the second part of the test a hobo forces you to be honest (I am not making this up), to test Candor. But what if you tell the truth to be brave? All the traits overlap. (Also: Like Tris is the only person in the entire history of this society that decided not to pick between the cheese and knife automatically.)
-Also also: Let’s talk about deciding your personality at age sixteen. You know what I was at sixteen? Stupid.
-Abnegation Faction: They are considered incorruptible for being so selfless but they are allowed to love, have, sex, marry, and have kids. You’d think that would leave them vulnerable to making political choices to protect certain people more than others. Also they think self-defense is self-serving. How is everyone still alive without Dauntless just killing them all?
-Erudite Faction: Set up as the enemies, Erudite members are shown to value knowledge in their lust for power. Has Roth ever read anything about the actual scientific community? Oh yeah, and they wear blue because it is scientifically proven to be a calming color. What?
-Dauntless Faction: They decide to cut their new initiates to ten after training and tests….but they’re supposed to be the army for their whole society. What about strength in numbers? (PS: Speaking of strength in numbers, most of their people appear to die from jumping off trains.) Oh, and, everyone runs around playing paintball Capture the Flag. which is a tradition they are told to take seriously. I am not kidding.
-Bad messages: Just in case we aren’t sure who to hate from time to time, Roth makes sure to emphasize the undesirable/unattractive physical traits in her villains (e.g. Eric is greasy, Molly has a bulbous nose and stringy hair, Jeanine is pudgy in the middle), and how the hell is that supposed to make readers with low self-esteem feel? Brave boys aren’t allowed to cry. Suicide is treated as either selfish or brave, depending on which faction you are from — neither of which I want teen readers endorsing.
-Before Tris and Four really discuss their relationship, there is something a little too reminiscent of the “abuse as romantic” trope. A direct quote: “I fear his [Four’s] shifting moods. They show me something unstable inside of him, and instability is dangerous.” And then Four tells Tris he doesn’t want to protect her, no, because: “My first instinct is to push you until you break, just to see how hard I have to press.” Great role model for relationships for teens. Because then they have a tender PG moment to reinforce the romance.
Everything Else (or the Things I Actually Loved):
-Amity sounds like a hippie colony obsessed with tie-dying and I want to read about what I can only assume is their polyamory, pot farming, and fruit festivals. (Note: We do not see anything about Amity besides a half-memory of Tris visiting a farm and thinking it was lame. This is all me.)
-The main villain in Dauntless is another trainer named Eric, who hates Four and is basically described as looking like Severus Snape. That’s not what I like. What I do like is: the way old-timey villains twirl their mustaches — villain Eric twirls his eyebrow rings. And I LOVE it.
-There is one chapter with literally a dozen mentions of people holding, eating, and throwing muffins without muffins having anything to do with anything. But what kind of muffins? Inquiring minds, Roth.
-Tris goes into the fear simulation room with Four and gets to see all his fears and the whole time she is like “This is great! This is fun! What’s wrong with you?”
Despite all this or maybe even because of all this, I will still be reading Insurgent and Allegiant and probably seeing the Insurgent movie. Now that I’ve got most of my problems with the society out of the way, hopefully these posts won’t be so verbose. Haha. Sorry.
P.S. Chebk: Roth is working on more books in the Divergent universe! Yay!