I live and work in Chicago, and for a shortish period of last year, I had the pleasure of bumping into the filming of the movie Divergent in various locations around town. I didn’t realize until it was already well under way that they’d turned a corner I drive past every morning into a mini film lot (though it made everything else make way more sense, since there was no insulation in those walls), they filmed in my actual workplace one Sunday, and I am a huge fan of films taking place in Chicago in general. I was eager to see the movie, and I wanted to read the book first, mostly so I would get the learning curve of this particular teen dystopia and could ignore the plot in favor of picking out where they filmed what and whether I’d stood in that same place before.
Turns out, that might have been the wrong tactic, since after reading the book I have little to no interest in seeing the movie (beyond the consistent motivating factor of getting to say “Hey! That’s my building!”). There are a great many things wrong with this book, everything from bad prose to bad concepts to bad execution. Added to that are poorly explained history, a failure to orient the reader in space (any space), and a whole whack of incredibly drippy teen romance. Hooray! …wait.
The premise, as you surely know, is that it’s The Future (as it always is, in popular teen fiction of late). There are five Factions to which everyone belongs (except the dregs of society, the factionless; you also end up a dreg of society by being made factionless). They are very inventively named. For ease of comprehension, here are the five factions and which Harry Potter house they match up with:
Erudite: Ravenclaw (knowledge above all else)
Dauntless: Gryffindor (bravery)
Amity: Hufflepuff (being really nice all the time)
OH BUT WAIT, those last ones don’t line up! That makes it a totally original story and not derivative of Harry Potter at all. I take it all back. There is a Sorting Hat, though, in the form of a computer simulation, and your reaction to it determines which
house faction you should be in. It’s still your choice though, which means you can opt to leave your family and your home faction and never see them again dun dun dun, because we needed a cheap source of angst. Our main character, Tris, (a Strong Female Lead in a teen dystopia, whose name is totally not Katniss Everdeen) is from Abnegation, but is full of a great deal of angst and conflict (naturally). She chooses, in the Great Choosing Ceremony that has some nice imagery, but involves cutting your hand, because factions want their new recruits to come in wounded, I guess. Anyway, sorry, she chooses Dauntless. Which is not where she is from, and angst.
The entire book is her settling in with the Dauntless, which is a brutal and unpleasant series of physical and mental challenges meant to weed out… the weak? The unfit? The degree of torment the initiates go through seems way tougher than anything the rest of the Dauntless face on a daily basis, even though they ostensibly serve as guards and general enforcer types. They also only take a small percentage of the initiates who want to be there (half, maybe? I don’t remember exactly), which makes you wonder about how the group sustains its membership numbers. Also, for a book called Divergent, there isn’t a whole heck of a lot of diverging. It’s only spoken of in hushed tones and as something bad, but no one will explain it. Intrigue!
The factions are explained in one line (which is a good line, admittedly), that there was this war (the war isn’t explained, or what led to it, or how long ago it was, or whether they’re the only humans on earth, or what), where the factions were formed by each group’s determination on what was causing the war to begin with. The Dauntless thought it was because people were cowardly, so they banded together as people supporting bravery. Candor thought it was deceit, so, candor. It’s a fine premise, but severely underdeveloped.
Anyway, there’s this guy who’s their main trainer/overseer guy, and his name is Four (that is a Significant Nickname and it’s revealed dramatically later both why it’s his nickname and what his real name is), and he’s like omg so mean to her, which doesn’t make any sense, cause she totally didn’t do anything to him.
Now, I was once a teen. I’m still a female, in fact. I have read a great deal of YA fiction, and I can do an awful lot of identifying with characters like Mia Thermopolis (the Princess Diaries), in which you pine after a boy and you loooove him and he doesn’t know you exist, or only sees you as a little sister, etc. I did a lot of unrequited pining in my day. But Tris is the worst kind of teen heroine, the kind who is so oblivious to another’s affections that you want to throttle her and yell HE REALLY OBVIOUSLY LIKES YOU, AND WHAT’S MORE, YOU LIKE HIM, SO STFU AND BE TOGETHER ALREADY. I made some notes of the kind of willful unseeing on the part of Tris, but it all boils down to one exchange where he says something supportive and she says something like “I didn’t hear the sarcasm, but I knew it must be there.” Well, no, it must not be there. That’s willful and deliberate recasting of what he’s said into what you think you want to hear. Shut up shut up shut up.
The problem (a further problem, that is) is that with Tris and Four being open with their romantic feelings for each other (which happens) is that there is ugh so much teeny affection. I’m not saying they need to get it on, I’m totally in favor of teens being responsible teens, but argh, there is so much kissing and generic cuddling. I need either more action or less description of the same kissing over and over. I get that I’m no longer the target demographic of this book, and odds are good that in high school I would have enjoyed being a squealing girl and coaching Tris in my head, saying “No! He likes you, you see! He did this, that, and the other thing for you!” But at the worldly remove of 25, it already feels trite and obnoxious. (also, for those of you playing along at home, we already covered two of the three most popular teen series in the last decade and a half; here is your direct reference to Twilight).
Also, this doesn’t have anything to do with anything else, but I also need to register my annoyance that Ms. Roth renamed the Willis (Sears) Tower “The Hub,” but explains it with an explicit “It used to be called x, and now we call it y instead,” indicating exactly which building she means. And yet, she leaves the John Hancock building as it is. Either call it The Hub and describe it as big and black (etc) and let us figure out that it’s the Sears Tower, or don’t rename it in the first place. And The Hub is never used as anything but a vague landmark, so there’s no reason to call it anything new anyway. Hmph.
So, in sum: the factions are stupid, they’re not explained, Tris is so obviously supposed to be special it’s a drag waiting for her to get around to actually being special, and reading the prose feels like chewing cardboard. Throw in a heaping helping of emotional unawareness and ta da! Magic!