I will undoubtedly anger some folks out there with this less than positive review, although I am wary of criticizing harshly the work of other authors, one, out of fear that I will rightly be called a hypocrite for judging others while making plenty of my own mistakes, and two, out of compassion because I know how difficult it is to write a logically consistent book. Nevertheless, I cannot keep silent when such a clearly bad book continues to get such applause among those who should know better, namely, the Children’s Choice Book Award Nominee for Teen Choice Book of the Year (2012), Abraham Lincoln Award Nominee (2014), and the DABWAHA Romance Tournament for Best Young Adult Romance (2012).
Let’s start with the positive. This was an easy, fast-paced read. I found it exciting and attention-grabbing, and I kind of liked Tris and Four. It was action-packed and suspenseful enough that I wanted to keep reading it. I think I actually enjoyed it; however, this fact is still inexplicable to me.
Now to the problems in this novel. Honestly, everything about this book was pretty unbelievable, beginning with the whole premise of being Divergent. The book takes place in post-apocalyptic Chicago of the future, where to achieve order and peace, it is thought best to segregate everyone according to five personality types: Candor (the obnoxiously honest), Amity (the friendly), Erudite (the intelligent), Dauntless (the brave), and Abnegation (the self-sacrificing). Each faction has certain jobs in society for which they are responsible. More about that later. Anyone who does not pass the initiation into one of these factions becomes factionless, which basically means homeless and on the street. If someone falls into more than one personality type, they are labeled “Divergent” and targeted for assassination. Roth writes:
“Decades ago our ancestors realized that it is not political ideology, religious belief, race, or nationalism that is to blame for a warring world. Rather, they determined that it was the fault of human personality – of humankind’s inclination toward evil, in whatever form that is. They divided into factions that sought to eradicate those qualities they believed responsible for the world’s disarray.”
Although the idea that some future generation of people would actually think this given our history is, well, okay, I can believe that. I don’t want to, but I can. We seem to repeat history. However, where the suspension of disbelief breaks down is the “Choosing Ceremony” and the testing that precedes it. Roth asks us to believe that a society that requires strict adherence to membership in a faction with the only alternative being death or homelessness actually lets their citizens choose a faction other than the one for which they tested compatible. This makes no sense. Really. Think about it. A person takes a test, which consists, by the way, of entering a simulation wherein the tester can see what you are experiencing and the results are recorded, they give you the result, say it’s Abnegation, but the person says, I really feel like a Dauntless. We are expected to believe that they are freely allowed to violate the whole purpose of the factions, thus proving themselves Divergent, and upsetting the whole peace-keeping plan? Another thing Roth asks us to fathom is that Tris and Four are the minority, that almost everybody else just has one personality trait. Seriously? Maybe I could buy this if she bothered to explain how we’d evolutionarily changed since the present time, or if she put forth some explanation of being genetically altered, drugged, brain-washed, or any explanation at all.
Okay, the next problem is that the Divergent can’t be controlled like everyone else. The Erudite want to take over leadership from the Abnegation, so they come up with a mind-controlling chip of some kind that is injected into the Dauntless to make them a zombie army, but Divergent people are completely unaffected. This is not explained either. Somehow having more than one personality trait makes them immune. The others are weak-minded for being good at one thing? I need explanation. I mean, isn’t their biology the same?
While I’m on the subject of the robotic army of the Dauntless, let’s talk about one of the biggest logic problems in the book. Tris finds out that the Erudite are creating a new simulation, the purpose of which is to trick the Dauntless into thinking they are doing the right thing by attacking the Abnegation. They will do this by projecting images into the minds of the Dauntless of Abnegation doing horrible things, but when the simulation is turned on, the Dauntless just become robots, obeying the command of the chip. What, then, is the purpose of the simulation? You are right; there isn’t one. The movie leaves this part out, by the way, so someone must have finally noticed the illogical nature of this plot development.
Moving on, let’s take a look at the Dauntless faction. This group is supposed to be responsible for keeping order as the military and police presence in the city. Yet, their training consists of mostly child-like, dangerous “YOLO” behavior like jumping off buildings, zip-lining, and beating each other unconscious. There is no disciplined basic training and respect taught. If anything, the Dauntless seem like hoodlums from which the citizens would need protection. The only thing in their training that really made sense was the fear simulations to face their greatest terrors. But even this has problems. At one point, the leaders get to watch Tris’s simulation. Wouldn’t one of her greatest fears be that they would find out she was Divergent? How could she hide it?
In the book, Tris overcomes her fear simulation by changing it through her thoughts–basically telling herself it isn’t real. Well, I don’t know why only Divergent people could do that; they all know they are in a simulation, but her simulations have to be erased over and over by people helping her so that she is not discovered. In the movie, Four tells her to face her fears like a Dauntless, looking for tools to use to find a way out, which would basically be Erudite, not Dauntless. Neither makes sense. For example, in the book when she is in Four’s simulation, they face walls closing in on them. Her answer in the book is to face it by making herself as small as possible, so the walls come even closer. In the movie, she shoves nails in the cracks to stop the walls, which isn’t really facing the fear. In the movie, Four makes a point of telling her to hide her divergence in the simulations, but she doesn’t even try in the book.
Another thing that drove me crazy in the book was the explanation of the factionless. Roth writes: “Because they failed to complete initiation into whatever faction they chose, they live in poverty, doing the work that no one else wants to do. They are janitors and construction workers and garbage collectors; they make fabric and operate trains and drive buses. In return for their work they get food and clothing, but, as my mother says, not enough of either” (p. 25). But every time the factionless are mentioned, they are portrayed as homeless and starving. The Erudite want to completely destroy the factionless. Why? Do they want to collect the garbage and drive the buses? Do they want a person, fainting from hunger and not getting a good night’s sleep driving them around? It is a very insulting way to depict these careers as well, but it makes no sense to try and get rid of or not care for your working class. No one else wants to pick up the trash, I’m assuming. Why are they homeless and starving? Don’t they get paid, at least in food and shelter, for driving the buses and trains? If they are, why are they starving? If they don’t get enough, why do they do it? By the way, what’s up with the trains? They run them day and night only for the Dauntless to jump on and off of?
Speaking of jobs, don’t most jobs require one to be Divergent? For example, in the book the Abnegation are the medical personnel. Although I can see how selflessness would be nice in this profession, I would think intelligence or even a friendly bedside manner would be more important. Why are the Amity farmers? How does being friendly qualify one for agriculture? Doesn’t the military need intelligence and selflessness? I certainly think so. Seriously, how did this get past a professional editor?
This is what bothers me most. This is not a self-published book with no editor. This book has been professionally proofread, edited, and marketed. Why didn’t any of the number of people reading this before it came out catch this stuff and send it back to Roth, saying, “Fix this!?” Her publisher should have spent as much money on the editor as she did on the marketing crew. Again, I worry about being a hypocrite. My book isn’t perfect. There are things an editor, had I had one, would have insisted I change. But at least it makes sense in the world I created. It is logical. I don’t ask the reader to believe things with no explanation. “You’re just jealous,” you may say, “because her book is wildly successful and yours is not.” Maybe I am, but I don’t think so. I love when a good book wins awards, becomes successful, gets the attention it earns. But the fact that many writers like me work very hard to write a consistently believable book that doesn’t insult the readers’ intelligence, and a book like this sells millions and gets a movie deal is annoying. I am not at all annoyed when great books get the accolades they deserve.
One thing I won’t do is criticize Divergent for being a copy of The Hunger Games. It is nothing like The Hunger Games. The Hunger Games was good, really good, but beyond that, all dystopian novels can trace their roots back to either Brave New World or 1984. I don’t hear anyone criticizing Fahrenheit 451 for being derivative of Brave New World even though it is. It is a phenomenal book with its own original take on the dystopian world, and it can stand alone. Knowing how long it takes for a book to go through the publication process, I doubt that Roth even had the chance to read The Hunger Games before beginning to write her trilogy. By the way, check out Stephen King’s The Long Walk or The Running Man, both written long before the YA craze of dystopian science fiction came about,if you want similar to The Hunger Games.
I will attempt to end on a high note. Even though there are abundant problems with the whole premise of this dystopian world and numerous plot points that make absolutely no sense, the action and suspense in this novel are enough to make the reader forget about the lack of logic through much of the book. Much to my astonishment, I still enjoyed this book. I wanted to finish it and finish it quickly. I didn’t want to put it down, and I looked forward to picking it up. So, I know Roth has a talent for storytelling and decent prose; she just needs to slow down, think it through, and then get a good editor.
The movie, on the other hand, was not even entertaining. Although the movie tried to avoid some of the logic flaws by leaving out certain errors, it still did not make sense, and it was slow. Without the first person narrative of what Tris is thinking as she tries to work her way through the fear simulations and survive the Dauntless initiation, there is not enough to keep the viewer engaged or to divert the reader from the glaring illogic of the story. 2 out of 5 stars for the novel and 1 out of 5 for the movie.–Christina Knowles