I have discovered that I am a fan of the post-apocalyptic/dystopian future genre, especially in young adult literature form. Now I’m not the kind of adult who only reads YA literature, but when I started teaching middle school English, I realized pretty quickly that I needed to be reading what my students were reading. When I started teaching, it was Percy Jackson. Now it’s The Hunger Games. I enjoyed Percy Jackson. I LOVED The Hunger Games. Not all dystopian future kid power books are created equal, but an excellent addition to the growing cadre of books of said genre that I recently read is Divergent by Veronica Roth.
Divergent is set in a future Chicago where the city’s population has been split into five groups based on their most dominant character trait: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite. (And yes, the group names are not consistently nouns or adjectives on purpose.) The story follows Beatrice, raised an Abnegation, as she breaks with convention by choosing another group at the coming-of-age Choosing Ceremony and figures out her new life as a Dauntless. Pretty straightforward, huh? Well, this would not be a YA dystopian future novel if it did not have friendships tested, sadistic teacher/trainers, an evil plot by some of the society’s adults that is discovered by our resourceful heroine, kid power, and, of course, the super-hot guy that everyone has a thing for but who only has eyes for our relatively un-special (in her mind) heroine.
Roth deals with some pretty heavy issues in the novel as well, such as bullying, abuse, and teen suicide. The setting takes some of the immediacy out of these issues but also allows for heightened and, at times, harrowing treatments of these topics. Underneath, however, Roth seems to have a good understanding of the realities of bullying for the victims, bullies, and bystanders, and readers will recognize and connect to the truth upon which these fictional scenes are built. Perhaps one reason for the popularity of this young adult genre is that these authors often are not afraid to tackle such difficult topics in a way that is straightforward and unflinching but also often present the victim as being able to rise above such abuse. These books present the normal kid or the weird kid or the shy kid and someone who can overcome how others see them to save the world. It’s hyperbolic, sure, but the successful, teenage, underdog hero is especially important in world where bullying is ever present but rarely properly dealt with.
As for Roth’s style, she is a clear yet engaging writer with a good sense of tempo and plot development. While I was able to see some plot twists coming from a mile away, some legitimately surprised me, which I appreciated. At times Beatrice felt repetitive as a character and her obstinate personality occasionally made me a bit angry, but she was also a character to root for. Even if she was doing something stupid out of spite (which happened a bit too frequently for my taste), her heart was ultimately in the right place, and her imperfections added to the complexity of her character. The secondary characters were particularly well-realized, multifaceted, and compelling as well, and I genuinely grieved after the above mentioned suicide. I did feel that there were plot lines (and holes) that were underdeveloped or even glossed over, particularly in relation to Beatrice’s family toward the end of the book, but it wasn’t enough to distract me from the book. Additionally, Roth has conceived this as a series (a trilogy, I believe), so perhaps some of these issues will be explored further in the later books.
Inevitably comparisons to The Hunger Games will abound as this is the first post-Hunger Games dystopian future book to distinguish itself from the pack. While I feel that Suzanne Collins is perhaps a more sophisticated writer than Roth, I also feel that the stories are sufficiently different enough that a true comparison is hard. Additionally, I had the opportunity to read The Hunger Games for the first time in its entirety, which is not the case with Divergent. I know some who vastly preferred Divergent to The Hunger Games and others who were lukewarm about Roth’s effort. It really is a personal choice. Overall, though, Roth presented a thoroughly original and entertaining story that certainly lives up to the challenge presented by The Hunger Games, and I am looking forward to reading the rest of the series.
Insurgent (Book 2 of the Divergent Trilogy) was released May 1, 2012