I remember when this book came out, back in 2011. The bookstore I worked at, at the time, got an advance copy and I looked it over briefly. In a dystopian future, a young girl coming of age (Tris) must choose which of five factions she belongs to (and hence which quality she values or sees most in herself): Abengation (selflessness); Candor (honesty); Erudite (intelligence); Dauntless (courage); or Amity (friendliness). But since she’s “Divergent,” this choosing process won’t go smoothly, and later there’s a big fight.
It sounded like the world’s most obvious metaphor for teenage identity crisis, and the cover, featuring a big burning Mockingjay-esque symbol, handily informed you that it was a blatant Hunger Games ripoff. I declined to read it, and in the intervening two and a half years, it’s become the most popular series in the world. The final volume in the trilogy, just released last month, set a record in first-day sales for its publisher, HarperCollins. My question is simple: why is this series so popular?
I’m going to try to figure that out, by reviewing all three Divergent books with an eye toward the greater YA craze.
First, let’s start with the wish fulfillment: these books are (sexual) fantasies for teenage girls. In both the Hunger Games and Divergent series, the young, female protagonists are described (by themselves) as homely, awkward, and generally bad at things they try to do. Their self-doubt in their identity and competence as a person manifests itself in doubt about their appearance and romantic desirability.
Then, these protagonists systematically receive external validation. They (figuratively and literally) become champions and lead their people through wars. And, if all that wasn’t enough, they become objects of adoration for incredibly attractive guys who love them despite their looks. (In Divergent, the love interest actually says, “‘Fine. You’re not pretty. So?’”)
All of this makes a lot of metaphorical sense, and it’s a very healthy message for teenage girls: everyone deserves love and everyone is great, despite how they look (or more to the point, how they feel about how they look). And it doesn’t hurt that the love interests in all these books are painfully perfect dreamboats who fall head over heels for these eminently relatable girls. (There’s a bit of a problem in desiring only attractive mates even as you seek validation outside of beauty, but that can be vaguely explained away via the difference between finding someone attractive and feeling attractive.)
Within this basic setup, the authors also make it a point to draw out the consummation (literal and figurative) of these relationships until the third book. This is a decidedly less healthy message to send as it overinflates the importance of virginity, and conflates sex with long-term emotional commitment (the idea that you should save yourself for your true love and all that). But it will keep you reading.
In fact, just about every element of Divergent is crafted to keep you reading, and to keep you locked in. Inevitably, a lot of the techniques Roth uses are a bit manipulative and formulaic—she has her heroine wronged terribly, sets up very evil bad guys that you want to see defeated, establishes a clear time frame in which the good guys must win, and so on. But these are formulas because they lead to consistent results, and manipulation could more charitably be called knowing the human psyche.
Personally, after having spent years in writing classes reading painfully boring literary stories, and after reading hundreds of books in which the author feels entitled to drone on about minute tangential details while never delivering an actual plot (let alone a plot twist), I have to say it feels nice to read something that hooks you in and makes you want to keep reading.
You know that Roth will not waste (much of) your time. You know that every 30 pages a rather pivotal scene will unfold which will move the story forward. You know that reading more will be both fun and satisfying.
This American Life recently did a show on “The Seven Things You’re Not Supposed to Talk About.” These included your diet, your health problems, and which specific route you took to get to wherever you are. Interestingly, these topics are not to be avoided because they are rude subjects, but rather because they are boring subjects. Because nobody cares. Writing needs a similar list. Authors, consider your audience, and their valuable time, and whether or not they care at all about what you’re telling them, on every page.
Interestingly, as good as Roth is at not wasting time, she is not technically a very strong writer. At least, her prose is never good, though it is smooth enough and only occasionally wince-worthy. Every reaction is overblown, and Tris’s emotional inner life is not unlike the melodramatic histrionics of a hammy soap opera actor.
The lesson, from this first installment, is that pretty prose alone will not make a book worth reading, or fun to read, but a compelling story doesn’t need pretty prose.
To be continued in the review of the next installment…