Divergent by Veronica Roth
I saw the trailer for the upcoming movie adaptation of Divergent shortly before it was recommended to me by two different people, so of course I had to check it out. I was really excited by the first book of the trilogy and even the second one, Insurgent.
Tris lives in a bleak Chicago sometime in the future, a city divided, partly abandoned and partly destroyed. Every person belongs to one of five Factions (though there are also the disenfranchised Factionless as well). While raised by parents within a Faction, each person has the chance to change to a different Faction after his or her sixteenth birthday. In order to inform that choice, each young person endures a simulated test to determine the Faction to which their natural tendency would lead. During her test, Beatrice learns she displays characteristics of three different Factions; she is Divergent. This idea of Divergence is a main theme in the storyline. What does it mean? How and why is she special? Are there others?
In the beginning, I was excited as I read about Beatrice, Tris as she called herself in her chosen Faction, the Dauntless. She pushed herself in her training and initiation to discover a depth of physical strength and exhilaration, but she also seemed to begin discovering the inadequacies of the Faction system and how some people may have a dangerous interest in maintaining it. I felt like her character showed a potential for moral development Katniss lacks in The Hunger Games. Her romantic interest, Tobias, seemed to be a similar character, a little farther along in moral development, that guided her a bit toward greater wisdom.
I was also excited by themes of guilt, confession, forgiveness, reparation, and reconciliation, particularly in the second book of the trilogy. I don't think the author delved as deeply as she might have, but there is ample material for a wonderful discussion with young adults, especially in a Catholic context.
There are lots of little details that could lead to good discussions about the sacraments and their perversion in the novel. For example, one of the Factions shares adulterated bread (perhaps unbeknownst to most of the community) that engenders calmness and peacefulness. It's a small part of the story and ultimately not very important, but I found it fascinating.
Unfortunately, everything seemed to fall apart in the third book, Allegiant. I was already a little prepared to be disappointed by the mixed reviews I saw online. (I didn't read them before I read the book; just glanced at the star ratings.) I was still surprised at how disastrous I found the third book.
In the interest of someone who might actually still want to read the third book after reading this review, I will try to avoid spoilers while explaining some of the problems I had with the book.
Their world seemingly constantly roiled by revolution, in the third book, Tris, Tobias and a few others venture out of the city of Chicago to learn the truth about the world around them. Here's where it all falls apart. Besides the fact that the truth they learn is completely implausible (right up until then, it was a more believable world than that in the Hunger Games trilogy), that truth also seems to imply that everything they've ever done, including in the first two books, was meaningless.
It could be saved here by the characters realizing the falsity of that claim. The meaning of our lives is not determined by some unknown "truth" the world tells us. Our lives are meaningful because we are people, because we have relationships with other people, love and care for each other. Unfortunately, they all seem to mindlessly accept their situation and become aimless in a way unbelievable for these characters. This part of the book is also incredibly slow with lots of talk and very little action, unlike either of the previous books. Like a lot of other readers, I had trouble telling who was doing what because of an alternating point of view (also new to this book) between Tris and Tobias, that was not distinguishable. (You know it's a problem when an eighteen year old young man and a sixteen year old young woman sound exactly alike.)
A recurring theme in the trilogy is that of sacrifice. Given the setting amidst a civilization in violent turmoil, it's not surprising that the sacrifices involved are usually physical and involve risking bodily harm and even death, but it's hard to see anywhere examples of the kind of sacrifice in which we battle against our selfish desires in order to serve others (and specifically follow God's will).
It's easy to see what is the right thing to do when faced with deadly circumstances. (Should I jump in front of a bullet to save my child? Of course!) It's not always easy to do what is right in that kind of situation, but everyone knows what to do. It's much more difficult to recognize the value and necessity of sacrifice of self in daily life, the kind of sacrifice that shows someone day after day that you love and care for them, that you are willing to collectively decide what is best for a family or a community and work together toward that goal. Tris's mother especially seemed to embody that idea early in the books, but in the end Tris doesn't dwell on those gifts of and from her mother.
At the end of the book, I had the impression that death is not only the ultimate sacrifice; it's really the only one that matters. That could be a dangerous idea to leave in a young adult's mind.
One final note, there is a very brief conversation in the third book about a romantic relationship between two people of the same gender that claims very clearly that the obviously immoral people currently in power disapprove of such relationships merely because they cannot procreate. It is obviously a half-truth based on the arguments of the Church and others. While elements like this are one of the ways dystopian literature allows us to discuss these issues and teach our young people to recognize subtle ways in which our morality can be undermined, in this instance it's not up for discussion. It's not a debate in the book, merely a slight mention that therefore makes it seem plain that the "bad guys" are wrong.
One of my goals is to prepare my children to read a paragraph like this, recognize it for what it is, and address it within their own minds by the time they are young adults, so they can read and enjoy literature like this, discuss it with their friends, and be a voice for faith and reason. Reading along with them, especially in the beginning, is how I intend to prepare them for that role. That being said, there's plenty of cruelty, violence, and death in the three books, so they're definitely for the more mature teenagers.
I'm very interested to see what happens in the movie version of the third book. If it remains as it is in the book, I'm not sure there will be many fans left to watch it. In my overall opinion, flawed as it is, people will still be reading the Hunger Games trilogy years from now. This one may fade away and be forgotten. If you can stand it, read the first two books and use your own imagination to invent an ending for Tris, Tobias, and the people of this future Chicago.