I’d heard a lot of buzz about Divergent. A friend had compared it to The Hunger Games, which I love, so I was thrilled when another friend offered me her ARC. I finished it in one day – yes, it’s that exciting – and I liked it. Not as good as The Hunger Games, and it didn’t blow me away, but I liked it. Divergent is a good start to what could be a great series.
The book hooked me from the very first page. The heroine, Beatrice “Tris” Prior, is about to turn 16 and so is about to choose which faction to join for the rest of her life. Tris’s society reminds me a bit of Lois Lowry’s The Giver. To maintain order, society has been divided into five factions, each representing a different virtue necessary to a utopia: Abnegation (selflessness), Dauntless (courage), Erudite (intelligence), Amity (peace) and Candor (honesty). Beatrice’s family belongs to Abnegation, but at 16, she can choose for herself whether to live the rest of her life according to the virtue of selflessness, or choose a different virtue, which will mean leaving her family forever. Once she chooses, she will then have to undergo an initiation process, and if she fails, she may end up among the factionless, who are poor and homeless.
It’s an interesting idea, particularly because I realize that the faction I would’ve chosen at 16 (Candor) is not the same as what I would choose now (Erudite). People change after 16, and Tris’s society doesn’t take that into account. There are Divergents, who exhibit dominant traits from more than one faction, and so technically don’t wholly belong to any one faction. However, Divergents are forced to hide their true nature and pretend to be completely part of one faction, for reasons that will be explained later in the book. Also interesting are the larger political issues characters in the story raise. Majority of the government is comprised of people from Abnegation, and it seems to make sense that society can be much improved by politicians who think more of others than of themselves. However, Jeanine, the Erudite government representative, challenges the current system, demanding a return of democracy, and accusing the Abnegation government of hypocrisy and corruption.
Unfortunately, most of the book barely deals with those issues. Without giving away any spoilers, I can say that once Tris chooses her faction, probably two thirds of book has to do with her training and tests to become a full-fledged member. The bigger political issue is referred to a few times, mostly by a character reading an editorial by Jeanine attacking the Abnegation government, and, by extension, Tris’s family. There are the requisite bullies, sidekicks, terror teachers, and love interest. Imagine the first book of Harry Potter, but with a faction-style training camp rather than Hogwarts. More action, less magic. Not necessarily a bad thing, and there were some exciting incidents during training (especially with the Edward/Peter rivalry), but with such a rich story in the larger picture, I found the training segment much too long. The secondary characters as well were mostly either likable or detestable, but none complex enough that I felt a very strong emotional connection to him/her.
The love story between Tris and Four is pretty good. Four respects Tris, and compliments her abilities without being condescending the way Harlequin-style heroes tend to do. They also have nice chemistry, and in an especially squeal-inducing scene, Tris shows her mother who Four is, and admits, “He’s kind of intimidating.” Her mother immediately replies, “He’s handsome,” and Tris says, “I find myself nodding without thinking.” However, unlike in Hunger Games, or even Harry Potter, there doesn’t seem to be much at stake for Tris and Four. The most significant conflict is brewing beyond the faction training and so Tris and Four’s romance mostly lacks the gravitas that the Katniss/Gale/Peeta triangle and the Ron/Hermione relationship had.
The issue of Divergents is developed in more detail than the political conflict, mostly the question of why Divergents are considered such a threat to social stability, just because they can fit in with more than one faction. I thought this was an excellent question, and a fascinating link to larger political and social issues, and wished it had been explored even more. However, I found the ultimate explanation simplistic and very one-sided.
In fact, bias is another major concern for me in this book. It might be because I would have chosen Erudite as my faction, but I don’t like how the Erudites are portrayed in such a bad light. In complete fairness to Roth, she mostly focuses on Jeanine as the villain, with Jeanine just happening to be Erudite, and Roth does also include a “good” former Erudite who becomes friends with Tris and disagrees with Jeanine’s tactics. However, Jeanine’s motivations are explained very superficially, and mostly with the judgement call that Erudites just want power. With Erudites representing intelligence and logical thinking, I would have loved to know more about their reasoning, or at least Jeanine’s reasoning, behind her actions.
The final fourth or so of the book, after faction training has been completed, and war suddenly breaks out, is the best part. The stakes have finally become higher, and characters become more complex. If this had happened much earlier in the book, Divergent might have completely blown me away. As it was, what I found to be the best part felt rushed. We get revelations about some of the characters, some dramatic developments and major character growth for Tris. Unfortunately, rather than all these twists at the end making me breathless, they made me feel like Roth was trying to squeeze everything she needed to say into the remaining few chapters.
That’s why I think Divergent is mostly just a good book, but with the potential for a great sequel. There are many threads left untied at the end, and I’d love to see how those get resolved. Roth is a strong writer, and hooked me into the story from the beginning. Divergent, however, works best as the beginning of a series and isn’t quite as strong as a book on its own. It’s a fun, exciting read; I just think it could have been so much more.