Life On the Edge

Divergent, by Veronica Roth. Katherine Tegan Books (HarperCollins), 2011, 487 pages.  Age/interest level: 14-up.

There is one mirror in my house.  It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs.  Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair.

. . . Today is the day of the aptitude test that will show me which of the five factions I belong in.  And tomorrow, at the Choosing Ceremony, I will decide on a faction; I will decide the rest of my life; I will decide to stay with my family or abandon them.

The publishing business observes three seasons, not four: spring, summer, and fall.  Like movie distributors, publishers schedule their high-impact books for the high-impact months, such as back-to-school or back-to-beach.  They get advance reader copies (ARCs) into the hands of influential reviewers and librarians; they post book trailers on their websites and set the author up with a blog, all in hopes of generating buzz.  Sometimes all these efforts fizzle.  This month, with the debut of the buzziest YA novel since Suzanne Collins wrapped up her Hunger Games trilogy, I suspect they will pay off.

As noted before, the strongest publishing trend in the YA market for the last two years has been the dystopia craze, led by The Hunger Games (soon to be a major motion picture).  With the publication of Mockingjay, last book in the trilogy, speculation naturally turned to what the next Big Dystopia series would be, just as “the next Harry Potter” or “the next Twilight” occupied acquisitions editors in years past.  If HarperCollins has its way, here it is: Divergent.  Two things about the author always make the press kit: one, she’s only twenty-two.  Two, she’s a professing Christian.

Veronica Roth graduated only last year from Northwestern University with a degree in creative writing.  Her manuscript was written between exams, classes, terms, relationships, and all the angst of young-adulthood, and for that alone Divergent is a notable achievement.

Let’s start with an intriguing premise.  The narrator is Beatrice Prior, who is lives in a city once known as Chicago.  The place would not be recognizable except for iconic landmarks like the Sears Tower (now called the Hub), or the Marsh (once Lake Michigan), because we’re unspecified years into the future, with a completely different social structure.

After the Great Peace (presumably after a Great War), society was reorganized into factions, each with its controlling value, who are to balance and serve each other.  Beatrice and her brother Caleb are getting ready for the annual Choosing Ceremony, where 16-year-olds will choose which of the five they feel most qualified to join: Abnegation (self-sacrifice), Amity (kindness), Erudite (intelligence), Candor (honesty), and Dauntless (courage).

Beatrice and Caleb were born in Abnegation, and all they know is humility and service.  But before choosing, they take an aptitude test to help them determine which of the factions best suits them.  Here the trouble starts, for Beatrice’s test results are “inconclusive.”  This is extremely rare, and so suspect that she is advised to tell nobody.  It would no doubt be safest for her to remain in Abnegation, but when the time comes to choose, she goes with Dauntless.  Her brother, just as surprisingly, picks Erudite.

The Dauntless faction, as she already knows, are anything but self-effacing.  They dress in black, deck themselves in tattoos and piercings, and outdo each other in daring.  They are the only ones, for instance, who ride the elevated trains, and they board and disembark by leaping between the moving cars and solid ground.

Beatrice’s first challenge is to jump off a skyscraper into an unseen net.  Then training, the first phase of which is personal combat with other trainees, some of whom are sadistic and vindictive.  It isn’t pretty, and the violence of this phase might be unsettling for readers who are coming straight from Melody Carlson, say.  Trainees are informed that only half of them will make the cut and remain in Dauntless; the rest will be factionless, which is a terrible fate akin to being homeless.  With so much on the line, rivalries develop, particularly with trainees who transferred from Candor and are used to speaking their minds.

But it’s soon clear that Candors are not entirely honest, Dauntless bravado is often a disguise for cowardice or pride, and Erudites use their intelligence selfishly—even Abnegation twists selflessness to its own ends.  Humanity is just not that easy to classify and the Great Peace has failed to create peace within.  In fact, war—the very thing the faction system was supposed to prevent—is hovering on the horizon, and Beatrice (now calling herself Tris) finds her most crucial choices are still ahead of her.

We don’t get to this point until almost 4/5ths of the way through, and the outset of hostilities feels a little hackneyed and rushed.  The previous 400 pages are mostly world-building, conflict-positioning, and character-shaping.

If I hadn’t known the author was a Christian I probably would have guessed.  Maybe by page 206, when Tris recognizes the depravity (her word) in her faction and yet sees an ideal worth restoring.  Maybe when she sees the words “Fear God alone” on the wall of a certain young man’s room.  Maybe toward the end, when her mother says, “Human beings as a whole can’t be good for long before the bad creeps back and poisons us again.”  These are clues to a certain mindset.  Is Christ in this novel?  His presence is not evident, but then, “his own” didn’t recognize him when he appeared among them.  If Christ is in the author, he’ll show up in the story.  I’m interested in seeing where it goes from here.

Dystopian novels, almost by definition, do two things: they lend themselves to the working out of ideas, or “what if–” propositions, and they push their characters to extremes.  Tris chooses the faction that will best help her discover who she is—the very task, minus some 70-foot-falls and mortal-combat situations, that most teenagers face.  Most teens today, especially in secular homes and schools, are taught to think of themselves as “good people” and may not have given much thought to how they categorize themselves and others.  If Divergent helps them step back and reconsider, it’s all to the good.

Cautions: some mild profanity, PG-rated love scenes, and violence.

Previous thoughts on the dystopia craze start here.   Paranormal romance is a bit passe, but still going strong; read about it here.  And don’t miss Emily’s search for Christ in literature, beginning here.

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One Response to Life On the Edge

  1. emily May 17, 2011 at 12:05 pm #

    I’m glad to get a summary of this, since I won’t be able to read it for a while. Curious to see where the next book will take the story….although, I can’t get over that she wrote this in college. I could barely hold a short story together at that age.

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