I was not entirely sold on Divergent. The premise seemed a little hackneyed, with the structured societal roles, main character’s inability to fit in...moreI was not entirely sold on Divergent. The premise seemed a little hackneyed, with the structured societal roles, main character’s inability to fit in with the rest of the peer group, and inevitable discovery that the society has its flaws. These elements strongly echo Lois Lowry’s The Giver, which is tough competition for any dystopian story. The Giver is so well done that all other texts will suffer in comparison. Furthermore, Beatrice’s character is very much in the mould of Tally Youngblood from Scott Westerfield’s Uglies series. The focus on her appearance, careless adrenaline seeking, and even her newly chosen name of Tris all bring Tally to mind.
All of this concedes that Divergent is not going to win any major awards for plot or characterization innovations in YA dystopian literature. The field is obviously pretty crowded and becoming more so all the time. Nonetheless, I discovered that I was being too hard the first book in Veronica Roth’s trilogy.
Tris may be in the Tally mould, but she is a lot softer. Her desires for friendship, physical closeness, and sense of belonging are understandable and make it easy to become invested in her happiness. Tris’ anxiety about her identity and self-doubts are believable and her flaws and mistakes are made clear, not just to us, but to Tris herself, through conversations with other characters and her own ruminations.
Not that this story is all thinking and self-doubt. There is a lot of action, driven by the first-person present tense format, and it moves quickly from set piece to set piece. Concepts of bravery, selflessness, and jealousy are neatly parsed (sometimes a little heavy-handedly, but without becoming too clunky). The society rules themselves are rather far-fetched, but sometimes it's best not too look to closely at the set up. Especially when we might be learning a lot more in the next two novels.
And the romance! Inevitably, there must be romance in all YA dystopias. There has to be something to get everyone’s mind off how horrible things are in their world. And honestly this is a romance that is worthwhile and balanced – Tris and her eventual partner do form a true partnership, where they rely on and value each other. Some rescuing does occur, but it goes both ways – they are vulnerable to each other and strong for one another.
Of course, the real question – That’s all fine, but DOES IT MEASURE UP TO THE HUNGER GAMES? In terms of intricate plotting, I would be hesitant to agree. The Hunger Games is a lot more tightly plotted, but to be fair Roth still has two books to go, and it would say it is equally fast-paced and a page turner. Romance – I actually prefer Divergent’s male lead, and it’s nice to have the female lead know her own mind and heart in this area. And it is so refreshing to not have a love triangle! Characters – Tris is no single-minded Katniss, but does win out in terms of realism. A sixteen-year-old might actually act as she does. I doubt many of us could actually follow Katniss’ example. World building – Divergent takes place in a pretty broadly sketched world and unrealistic world, and the Big Bad is no match for the malefic President Snow, but I’m willing to let it slide. Tris’ awesomeness carried me through the (many!) questions I would have about how their society functions. In terms of my earlier issues about plot and characterization, well, sometimes formulas are that way for a reason: they work. Roth works inside the YA heroine and dystopia conventions and still produces a solidly entertaining and engrossing book.
Overall, my answer is YES. If you love The Hunger Games, try Divergent – it might ease the pain of knowing there are no more books to read. And if you like reading about tough decision, strong and capable heroines, questions of family loyalty and struggles against bureaucracy, give this winning YA novel a go.
And a quick word about the violence: if you have shied away from The Hunger Games due to the teens-killing-teens plot pivot, know that Divergent has a little less of that. Less of the hand-to-hand kind, anyway. These teens carry guns.