Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Divergent (Divergent Series #1) I have to admit, I didn't have high expectations when I picked Divergent off the shelf.  Maybe it was just a symptom of young adult dystopian overload.  In any case, it was the January selection for my book club so I was willing to give it a try.  Still, I waited until the last minute - the Monday before the Saturday when the book club meets - to begin reading the 400 plus page story.  I was worried I had waited too long and wouldn't finish in time.  Turns out there was nothing to worry about.  At the end of day one I had made it to page 130.  I would have finished it on day two but one of my resolutions this year is to get up and exercise before work which requires going to bed at a decent hour, so I reluctantly put the book aside.  I picked it up as soon as I could on day three and finished it.  It only goes to show just how wrong preconceptions can be.

At the center of the story is sixteen-year-old Beatrice "Tris" Prior.  She lives in a society that is divided into five factions: Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful) Candor (the honest), Erudite (the intelligent), and Dauntless (the brave).  The story behind the factions is that once there was some sort of war and after the war ended people divided themselves into the above groups based on ideas about the causes of war and conflict, what is most important in life, and what is the best way to live. 

The beliefs held by each faction run deep.  They permeate every aspect of an individual’s life.  The Candor faction, for instance, believes that dishonesty leads to conflict, suspicion, and evil and so they strive to be completely honest and transparent, no matter the consequences.  Others may see their brutal honesty as rude or unkind, but for those in the Candor faction, even lying to spare someone’s feelings is doing that person an injustice.  Initiates in Candor must reveal their deepest, darkest secrets on the basis that an omission is as dishonest as an outright lie and that truth prevents misunderstandings (which can lead to conflict).  Those in Abnegation attempt to avoid all temptations of self-indulgence.  They avoid mirrors, dress plainly, eat simple food, and don’t seem to believe in free time (or strangely, art) as such time could be spent helping someone else.   

At age 16 girls and boys must take an aptitude test aimed at helping the teen choose which faction they wish to join as an adult.  Regardless of what the test says or what faction a person was born into, the teen gets to pick which faction they want to be a part of.  Beatrice was born into the Abnegation faction.  Her test results are inconclusive – the only faction that is conclusively ruled out is Candor.  (Funny how kindness and selflessness conflict with honesty.)  This makes her, gasp, a Divergent.  The woman who administers Beatrice’s test cautions her to tell no one about her test result as her life would be in danger.  Beatrice doesn’t understand why.  The only thing she knows is that she isn't cut out for Abnegation.  For one thing, she is too curious to be so selfless.  (Asking too many questions can be considered to self-indulgent in the Abnegation faction).  So Beatrice chooses Dauntless and renames herself Tris.

Much of the story follows Tris as she tries to gain a foothold in the Dauntless tribe.  It turns out the Dauntless don’t just accept everyone who chooses them.  They make their initiates prove why they should be allowed to join the faction.  Smaller than most of the other initiates and with a natural instinct towards kindness and cooperation, Tris struggles to prove herself.  At the same time she tries to figure out what being Divergent means and why it is considered so dangerous.  Meanwhile, unrest is brewing among the five factions.  Each faction controls a different aspect of societal life.  Because they are considered selfless, only members of Abnegation serve in the government and the Erudite are none too happy about that.  It would seem that dividing into five factions isn’t working to prevent conflict quite as well as everyone had hoped.

I thoroughly enjoyed Divergent and am eager to read the next book in the trilogy, Insurgent.  In particular, Veronica Roth did a great job in creating the world in which Tris lives.  It felt real.  Perhaps it felt that way because essentially this is a coming of age story (at least in part) in which a young person has to figure out who she is and if she is willing to be that person even if it means defying her parents or society's expectations.  I love the idea of the five factions, all of which are great virtues to strive for.

Of course, I can guess where this going.  Eventually the inhabitants of this world will come to understand that bravery, honesty, selflessness, kindness, and the pursuit of knowledge are all valuable and valid virtues, and further, that each on their own is often not enough to prevent conflict or maximize happiness.  Honesty without kindness can be cruel.  Bravery without intelligence (or the other way around) can lead to more death and destruction that not.  A willingness to be kind at all cost can lead to nothing getting done, among other problems.  Even though I can guess where this headed I am looking for the journey to see how it gets there.

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