“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.”
If much-hyped books were pyramid-stacked bottles in a carnival arcade game, my hit or miss ratio would be about even. (The way I approach the game remains constant: warily, but with a healthy sense of anticipation.) Consigning Divergent’s overwhelmingly positive reviews to the periphery, I began the book with the expectation that it would fall into line as one or the other – a hit or a miss – only to draw up short when, at the end, it defied placement in either category.
The premise of Divergent begs one simple question: If given the same choice as Tris, which faction would you choose? As I read, in the back of my mind, I wrestled with my answer. My inability to claim a faction for my own nails down one of the things I appreciated most in the novel: Despite this dystopian world’s black and white leanings, shades of gray were myriad. Individuals within several of the factions confronted doubts or challenged the faction’s ideals either secretly or overtly; each one responded to manipulation and propaganda in radically opposing ways. Watching the cracks appear and shift further and further apart provided a backdrop of tension and anticipation that appealed to me in a way that in your face action never can. On the whole, the striving for abstract perfection, unreasonable-at-heart world of Divergent numbered among my favorite aspects of the novel.
Where the story stumbled for me is best summed up in two parts: the first focusing on Tris herself and the second on a particular development at novel’s end.
From the beginning, I wanted to rally behind Tris; I wanted to experience her pain and pride, her uncertainty and exhilaration, but felt removed from her instead. That sense of withdrawal had nothing to do with disliking her; Tris was a strong, stubborn heroine who was determined to justify and prove herself. It had nothing to do with her narrative voice, which was uncluttered and honest. But it had everything to do with the fact that her character didn’t engage my emotions. I’d love to be able to provide a reason why, or to give examples to validate that feeling, but I can’t. Tris and I, we just didn’t click.
Regarding that development at the end: you’re going to wonder what I’m nattering on about in this upcoming paragraph. I can’t tell you. In the words of Doctor Who’s River Song: “Spoiler.” Bear with me (and for those of you who’ve read the novel, you’ll likely identify what I’m referencing. I hope.) On one hand, there was a great deal to appreciate about the ending, namely that it showed considerable plot advancement. The cliffhanger was marginal, barely even worthy of the title, which is refreshing in the first of a trilogy. But there was one interaction at the very end that felt…rushed. That was, to my mind, somewhat out of place. Not unreasonably so; not enough to make me cringe or want to toss the book. Just enough to take the oomph out of one of the story arcs, though I’m likely in the minority with that opinion.
There’s plenty more to say – like that Tris’ initiation into her faction, which accounts for the majority of the novel’s page count, kept my interest for all that it felt like a familiar, tired plot-friend – but why? When it comes down to it, I won’t hesitate to pick up the second in the trilogy, and perhaps that’s all that really needed to be said.