I’ve been curious about this book for some time – understandably so, considering the huge media buzz tied to the recently produced movie – but I’ve kept procrastinating because I was aware I could not avoid the analogy with The Hunger Games. It’s next to impossible not to compare Ms. Collins’ work with other YA dystopian books, if nothing else because of the broad success enjoyed by her trilogy and the huge wave of genre books that keep appearing on the wake of that success – the proverbial elephant (or rather mockingjay?) in the room is there, and it must be dealt with.
There might be some common traits between the two series but Divergent walks on a very different path: the world of Hunger Games is harsher, more violent, and Katniss’ experiences, prior to the beginning of the story, include parental loss, hunger and despair, forcing her to a psychological growth that goes beyond her years and makes her a living, breathing, believable person. The dystopian landscape painted in H.G., a tyranny enforced through fear, intimidation and cruelty springs in marked relief from the book pages, with a stark quality that was deftly rendered in the movies.
That didn’t happen for me with Ms. Roth’s future Earth, and its “government” divided into factions that are meant to provide a balanced rule, because it’s evident from the start that the balance is not there, and maybe never has been – which made me wonder how this society managed to last as long as it did. I experienced the same lack of belief for Tris, Divergent‘s protagonist: there are too many contradictions in her character, too many unrealistic discordances – even taking into account her young age and the somewhat sheltered life she’s led until the readers meet her. For starters, I think Ms. Roth’s trilogy is more markedly aimed toward a YA audience than its “competitor” (and this shows clearly both in world-building and dialogues), and therefore both the world and the characters are depicted in broader, less precise strokes – I’d say they are more tropes than people, if this did not sound too harsh even to my own dissatisfied ears.
And then there is Tris herself: her life has been somewhat easy, any form of privation and/or violence is something that she knows exists, but has never experienced directly. So it’s not a great surprise if she sounds so naive or… well, too teenager-ish. She is a teenager, with all the drives and contradictions that her age entails. And yet there is still something that does not feel right. Something that kept me from becoming invested in her as a character and a person.
After a while what I initially perceived as naiveté was revealed as self-centeredness, if not downright selfishness – which sounds quite bad when applied to someone raised by the Abnegation faction as she is. Tris did not earn my sympathy as a reader, because she looks quite focused on her own needs and drives: one might say that’s typical of a sixteen year old, but once she makes the choice to abandon her faction – and her family – for Dauntless, her longing for her parents and brother appears more perfunctory than real. The Dauntless initiation program is certainly quite absorbing, both physically and mentally, but I expected more from her than the casual wistful thought – and certainly not the thinly veiled contempt she feels, on the first night of her new life, when she hears a bunkmate’s muffled, and quite understandable, sobs.
All Tris cares about, all she can think of, is to belong to the Dauntless faction, to carve her niche in it, even if this means changing into something she’s not sure she can embrace: after all, we’re made aware from the start that such a choice is made not out of deep convictions, but because ultimately the Dauntless look “cool”, as opposed to the drab life of Tris’ own faction, or the others’ as well. It’s never stated openly, but it’s there as a subliminal reminder every time Tris observes the other factions and… finds them wanting.
Matters become worse when, at some point, it’s hinted she possesses some special qualities and will certainly be accepted into her new faction with all honors – she entertains the thought that she might be leaving her course mates behind (because she’s better! because she’s special!), and though that fleetingly saddens her, she accepts it as a fact of life.
I don’t need any of them, not if they’re going to react this way when I do well.(…) I don’t want to lose them. But I feel like I have already.
If I was supposed to empathize with this girl, that sentence killed any residual chance, and stomped it under its boots…
Sadly, it does not end here, because of another mandatory requirement of the genre: the love interest for a darkly brooding, mysterious boy who is Tris’ instructor and is also – oh-so-unsurprisingly – attractive in a way that makes Tris’ knees turn to water in no time at all. This sounded the death knell for any remaining possibility I had of enjoying this book: added to the other predictable tropes plaguing the book and Tris’ character – who does trespass too much into the Mary Sue cliché for my comfort – it added trite obviousness to an already uninspiring mix.
It was too much and I had to stop, accepting failure – not with a heavy heart though, but with something approaching relief.
My Rating: 2/10