Are teenagers obsessed with post-apocalyptic politics now or what am I missing?

Divergent hc c(2)

After promising my sister that I would spend this past weekend hitting 20% on ye old Les Miserables, I did absolutely no such thing. Instead I got really caught up in this New York Times article about “new adult” books, then proceeded to read five books for teenagers instead. I know: I have the literary tastes of a 14-year-old me.

Of course, having now availed myself of the relevant resources (i.e. teen sex books) I have some things to say about this “new adult” trend, but that’s a post for another day. Instead, my first review of 2013 goes to Veronica Roth’s Divergent, Book #1 in a young adult series that will ring quite a few bells for anyone familiar with young adult series.

(It probably says something about today’s teens that all their literary blockbusters include dystopian future societies where political ideology results in the institutionalized oppression of the masses. Must be that Justin Bieber, influencing them on the causes that count.)

Divergent is set in a dystopian Chicago, where society is divided into five factions, each founded on respect for a particular virtue: Candor (honesty), Abnegation (selflessness), Dauntless (bravery), Amity (peace) and Erudite (intelligence). Each faction reveres their chosen virtue to a fault: the Candor are transparent but brash, the Abnegation selfless but sheltered, the Dauntless courageous but reckless, the Amity complacent but ambivalent and the Erudite astute but overly pragmatic. On an appointed day each year, all sixteen-year-olds in Chicago 2.0 must choose the faction to which they will belong for the rest of their lives. Notably, those who select a faction other than the one in which they were raised agree to an all but certain exiling from the friends and family they’ve always known.

From page one, Divergent falls in line with its predecessors in the Young Adult Dystopia (let’s call it YAD) genre: Abnegation-raised Beatrice shocks her family when she decides to switch factions, and shocks absolutely no one when she meets a “sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating” boy in her new community. Faction initiation reveals vulnerabilities; love blossoms; a treacherous plot is discovered; a battle is fought. Although I haven’t read the third book in the series—it comes out this fall—it seems reasonable to assume that the turmoil documented in Divergent/#2 Insurgent will peak, then cease, and that Beatrice and her now-only-fascinating Boy Toy will end up together, somehow presiding over the dawn of a new age in political ideology and mutual respect for all virtues. Not saying I don’t plan to read Book 3, just saying I’ve seen this story before.

What makes Divergent interesting—dare I say mildly unique—is that its conflict doesn’t rely on the avarice or corruption of a single person or body of people. Sure, there are instigators in the war that’s ultimately waged among factions, but said war isn’t the byproduct of an immoral central government (see: The Hunger Games,  Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451). No one’s fighting evil vampires (Twilight, The Strain) or rebelling against dubious biological conditioning (The Handmaid’s Tale,  Never Let Me GoBrave New World again). Rather, Divergent pits virtue against virtue, ideal against ideal, and good intentions against a paved road to Hell. This facet of the novel—a central fight that’s more Hufflepuff vs. Gryffindor than peasant vs. king—makes it special, and in some sense a better read for teenagers. “Would you rather be always honest or always brave?” is a more valuable question than “Would you rather be poor and oppressed or not poor and oppressed?”

Through the factions, and other less central plot points, Roth makes a valiant effort to separate Divergent from the myriad comparisons it invites. Dystopian Chicago is fleshed out and fascinating, and smaller tidbits—the Abnegation’s charity work, the Dauntless’s mode of transportation—help paint a picture of a symbiotic relationship between distinct communities and their five core values. Allusions to exciting third-book developments—like WTF is outside of Chicago 2.0—also suggest the series could spin off in other directions. I’m hoping it does.

But it’s hard to step inside a bookstore these days without tripping over a young adult novel pitting good against evil, or intrepid teenagers against the morally bankrupt. Despite Roth’s best efforts, Divergent is not better—and only passably different—than novels that have come before it. It’s the houses of Hogwarts meets the districts of The Hunger Games meets the job selections of The Giver. At the very least, she could have done with a different cover design.

Of course, just because something’s been done before doesn’t mean it’s no good (see: the rest of pop culture). Roth’s books are compelling and fun, and it’s relatively easy to overlook their lack of thematic innovation. If YAD novels are your jam, then let’s be honest: Divergent will be, too.


TITLE: Divergent (also Insurgent)
AUTHOR: Veronica Roth (she’s only 24, in case you thought you’d done anything worthwhile in life)
PAGES: 496 (in paperback)
SORTA LIKE: Hunger Games meets The Giver
FIRST LINE: “There is one mirror in my house.”

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