Beatrice Prior grew up in a very different Chicago, one in which all its citizens have been separated into five distinct factions based on personalities and beliefs: Abnegation for selflessness, Amity for peacefulness, Candor for honesty, Erudite for intelligence, and Dauntless for bravery. At the age of sixteen every person is given an aptitude test which determines the faction for which they are best suited. No matter what the results of the test, they must then choose whether they will stay in the faction into which they were born or devote the rest of their lives to a different faction, but to do so would mean forsaking their families.
After completing the aptitude test, Beatrice is told she is a Divergent, someone whose test is inconclusive. However, she is also told that she must never reveal her results to anyone, for to do so could endanger her life. She was born into Abnegation, but has never felt entirely at home there. She loves her family and doesn't want to leave them, but on Choosing Day, she makes a decision that surprises everyone. Once in her new faction, she rechristens herself Tris. She and her fellow initiates undergo a rigorous, often brutal, training regimen by the end of which not everyone will become full-fledged members. Those who don't score well enough will be relegated to the ranks of the factionless, who are little more than impoverished servants to those who have a faction. Throughout her training Tris must determine who is friend and who is foe, while making sense of her attraction for one of her trainers, a boy who is only a couple of years older than her and who alternately infuriates and intrigues her. Within their seemingly perfect society, a wave of unrest is growing, which eventually erupts into conflict. Tris must decide whose side she's really on, while unraveling the mystery of her Divergent nature which may be the key to saving those she loves most.
Divergent is proving to be a tough book for me to review, because I finished it with very mixed feelings. The premise behind the story is quite good and intriguing, but ultimately, I felt like the execution was somewhat lacking and not quite up to the standard I expected based on the outrageously high ratings it has on GoodReads and other book-related sites. I can see why many are enamored of this book, but IMHO, it wasn't as good as similar books I've read. Because of its dystopian setting and its tough, teenage, female protagonist, the comparisons to The Hunger Games are inevitable. While I go into reading every book, trying to judge it on its own merits, I have to admit it was difficult for me to avoid drawing those comparisons too. Whereas, I was engrossed and enthralled by the world of The Hunger Games, the Divergent world didn't quite draw me in the same way. Whereas, I always felt like I understood Katniss even when she made choices I personally wouldn't have, Beatrice often confused me. Whereas, I totally fell head over heels for Peeta, who is now one of my all-time greatest literary crushes, Four didn't quite capture my heart. Whereas, I was very emotionally invested in Katniss and Peeta's romance, Tris and Four's romance seemed lackluster by comparison and just didn't have the same depth of emotion. As I'm sure you can tell, Divergent simply didn't meet the high standard set for me by The Hunger Games, but I'll admit it was good enough to make me want to continue with the series.
Beatrice aka Tris is the first-person narrator of the story. She was born into a dystopian world in which everyone is separated into five different factions based on their personalities and beliefs. At the age of sixteen, which Tris now is, she must choose whether to stay in Abnegation, the faction into which she was born, or switch factions, but to do so would mean leaving her family. Tris obviously loves her family, which made her choice to join a different faction a difficult one, but in her heart, she felt like she didn't belong there anymore. To top if all off, the aptitude test she took before the Choosing Ceremony labeled her a Divergent, someone who doesn't fit neatly into any one faction. She is also told never to speak of her result, because anyone knowing this information could be extremely dangerous for her. As Tris goes through the initiation into her chosen faction, she proves herself to be a very worthy candidate. She's tough as nails and never gives up even when things get rough. In this respect, I'd say she was an admirable character and a good role model. However, where I found myself having problems with Tris is in her seemingly contradictory personality. Sometimes, she could show brief moments of compassion and kindness, but more often than not she squelched those feelings, which sometimes led her to being cruel and callous. She loves and misses her family and faction to an extent, but also doesn't seem to have any real qualms or regrets about taking an independent stand. She sometimes thinks of herself as weak, but exhibits a great deal of strength. One minute she's upset, maybe even crying, in a moment of vulnerability; the next, she shuts down her emotions and turns cold and angry. Ultimately, Tris was a big bundle opposites that made it difficult for me to get an emotional read on her. I strongly suspect that the author was attempting to use this dichotomy to express Tris's Divergence, but having her bounce around from one behavior and feeling to another was simply confusing to me. I think Ms. Roth could have found a better way to show that Tris was different without turning her into an enigma. As she was written, I can't really say whether I liked Tris or not. Sometimes, I very much admired her actions, and other times, I was very disappointed in her thoughts and behavior. I think the thing that bothered me the most was her seeming unforgiving nature, especially toward anyone who ever wronged her, even in small ways. I think an author can show a character to be strong without making them appear cold and unfeeling toward others, especially when Tris was raised in a faction that was the exact opposite. So, in the end, I'd say I have rather ambiguous feelings toward Tris. She was an OK character, but not one that I found to be compelling enough to carry the entire story on her small shoulders.
One of the drawbacks to writing a story in first-person POV is that the secondary characters can become little more than window dressing. Unless they're in the hands of an extremely talented writer who knows how to bring them to life through the eyes of the narrator, they can be difficult for the reader to get to know, and that's largely how I felt about the supporting players in Divergent. The most important character besides Tris is her love interest, Four. He is one of the trainers of the initiates and eventually becomes more than that to her. When Four first appeared, he was an intriguing character, someone whose philosophy is honorable and stands out in stark contrast to that of the other trainer and faction leader, Eric, who is cruel and ruthless. However, I correctly guessed two of the most important pieces of information about Four long before they were revealed, making those parts rather anti-climactic. There were tidbits of ingredients sprinkled throughout the book which if nurtured could have made Four a real stand-out character, but overall, I felt like he didn't live up to the potential. A large part of the reason he didn't is that he and Tris never really shared much in the way of meaningful interactions or conversations that would show what makes him tick. The only thing I can think of is Four allowing Tris into his fear landscape, which showed a certain level of trust in her, but they don't really discuss the experience afterward. I truly wanted to love Four in the same way so many other fans seem to, but ultimately, much like with Tris, I couldn't get a strong enough impression of him as a person to feel like I knew him. As to most of the other characters, they tend to fall into prescribed roles of friend and foe and rarely deviate from that. The one time someone does, I was stunned by this character going from good to bad in a heartbeat, and never understood what would drive him to do what he did. Overall, there was just enough development to make me care about some of the supporting players, but I never really felt like I truly got to know any of them on the deep level I crave.
As a parent, I feel that Divergent is suitable for the young adult age group for which it is intended. As with many dystopian novels, the element which would probably be of primary concern is the violence. There is a fair bit of this, but I felt it wasn't nearly as graphic as it could have been. However, it can get somewhat brutal at times. The initiate training can seem rather severe with the kids beating up on each other until one is knocked out cold and/or bleeding. They also do other dangerous things and often get injured. A character is stabbed in the eye with a knife. Tris is kidnapped by some villainous boys who threaten to kill her and inappropriately touch her. A character presumably commits suicide. They must face their fears inside a fear simulation which could be troublesome if the reader experiences any of the same fears as the characters. In the end, a war breaks out in which many are killed, including some characters readers have come to care about. This also necessitates Tris and Four carrying firearms and killing others in self-defense. Otherwise, there is little in the way of objectionable content. I believe I counted only three mild profanities. Four is seen a bit buzzed on alcohol in one scene and others are drunk in the background. Tris and Four share some kisses that gradually get more passionate as the story progresses, but there isn't much in the way of sexual content. There is one scene where Four removes his shirt while they are alone together, which stirs some fluttery feelings in Tris, but overall, any sexual references are pretty minimal and mostly veiled.
For a dystopian novel, I felt like Divergent moved rather slowly for about the first ¾ of the book. It focuses pretty narrowly on Tris's initiate training with a sprinkling of tidbits here and there to show that things in the world at large are not as perfect as they seem and that tensions are rising. There is some action and adventure as Tris goes through her initiation process, just enough to hold my attention, but what I really wanted to know was how this deviant world and its factions came to be. Unfortunately, there was really no backstory to explain all this, which was disappointing. Even the explanation of why it was dangerous to be a Divergent wasn't revealed quickly enough to suit me, but I did like the ideas behind it once I fully understood it. Then after plodding along, everything finally escalates at a breakneck pace during the last 100 pages or so. I would have preferred if the political jockeying had been woven in a little more prominently and sooner to build more suspense and an overall sense of the peril that was to come.
The last thing that kind of bothered me about Divergent is the writing itself. Despite being classified as young adult, this book is written at about a fifth grade reading level. Most of the time, the author's word choices and sentence structure are pretty simplistic, which made it quick and easy to read, but difficult for me to connect with because of its lack of sophistication. I know many readers enjoy the spare type of writing style that Veronica Roth employs, but I much prefer the richer complexities of language that paint vivid word pictures and metaphors. When used well, it allows me a window, not only into the mind of the characters, but the writer herself. When Ms. Roth isn't writing overly simple sentences, she has a tendency to use run-on sentences which IMHO needed to be broken up to maintain the flow. She also needed way more contractions than what she used. As written, the wording was often stilted, especially in dialog. I honestly couldn't envision a group of goth-like daredevils speaking in such a formal manner, so I had to contract the words in my own mind.
After all my many criticisms, readers might wonder why I still chose to give this book four stars. In all honesty, I'm not entirely sure I can explain it myself. As I mentioned when I started this review, I have very mixed feelings about Divergent. It does have a measure entertainment value, as I wasn't really bored while reading it. It also has a certain appeal in its world-building, enough so that being left with an unfinished ending makes me want to continue. As much as I didn't feel like I got to know the characters well enough to genuinely say I liked them, I, at least, liked them well enough to be curious about what happens next for them. In this respect, I guess one could say Ms. Roth was successful in her mission as a writer, because even though I thought the story could have been much better constructed, she still sufficiently peaked my interest to make me come back for more. And this I suppose, is the main reason I still felt compelled to give Divergent a favorable rating despite its many shortcomings.
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