The Plot: In a future Chicago, a person is born into one of five factions. Each faction lives according to an overall guiding belief system. Abnegation: being selfless. Amity: peace and love. Candor: honesty. Dauntless: courage. Erudite: knowledge. Each faction pursues different professions, wears different clothes, has different lifestyles and culture and ethics. Abnegation runs everything, with the belief that selfless people aren’t corrupted by power. Dauntless protects the borders of the city.
Beatrice Prior was born into Abnegation. She dresses in gray; the most affection she sees her parents show each other is hand holding; she only sees herself in a mirror on the days her mother cuts her hair. She is sixteen and the day is fast approaching when she will need to decide which faction to chose to live in for the rest of her life. Once that decision is made, it will be “faction before blood.” All ties, to Abnegation and everyone in it (her parents, her older brother Caleb) will be cut forever. A test is given, to assist teens in making their decision.
Beatrice knows she doesn’t belong in Abnegation; she knows she is not selfless. She wants something different but she doesn’t want to disappoint her parents and leave her family. Her test results are unexpected, opening up choices she didn’t know she had.
The Good: Ha ha, some may say, how unbelievable, a test at 16 that decides your future! Unbelievable? Have you heard of the SAT? While we don’t live in a world that requires “faction before blood” and abandoning the past when one makes a choice about the future, the decision made by teens at that time do shape their future. Selecting a university can impact career, friendships, family, partner, where one ends up living, just as deciding not to go to university, to join the military, to go to work right away, also influences living choices.
Why factions? “It is not 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.” Believe that aggression causes the world’s problems? Join Amity, to use peace to overcome that quality. And so on.
It is impossible to read Divergent and not think, “what faction would I be in?” I’m too selfish for Abnegation, too cynical for Amity, not blunt enough for Candor, not brave enough for Dauntless, and not clever enough for Erudite. But I like working with others to achieve things, like Abnegation, or keeping the peace, like Amity; I value honesty, like Candor, can stand up for myself and others, like Dauntless, and value knowledge like Erudite.
When I first heard about Divergent, I thought, “who would pick Abnegation?” Roth paints a warm picture of people who get along because they think of others; the type of world where, when the dinner party is over, everyone gets up to help. I also found it fascinating how a faction controlled every aspect of a person’s life. Not just “faction before blood,” but also clothes (Abnegation wears gray, Candor black and white, Dauntless black); where they live; their houses; even the food they eat. Self-selection into factions, “like” people living and interacting only with “like” people creates some uniformity of characters (all the Dauntless love piercings and tattoos!), but there is also diversity and individuality.
All these factions work together, like a perfect puzzle, to create a perfect society. Well, the intent was to create a perfect society, but can people really be so divided and a society remain whole? Does “faction before blood” really mean “faction instead of blood”? Beatrice — now called Tris — makes her choice and struggles to succeed. Divergent is about more, though, than factions. Tris discovers truths about her society; she is forced to make even more choices, ones that will not just impact herself but impact all in her world. Divergent is about more than exploring a structured world; it’s also action packed, as Tris moves from child to full member of her chosen faction, undergoing initiations and discovering who she really is.
What else? Yes, there is a romance for Tris! It is a romance between two strong individuals, a romance that has both flirtation and respect.
For terrific, nuanced world building; for an amazingly mature romance; for a strong main character that is just the perfect mix of confidence and doubt; for leaving some conclusions for the reader to make; and for being a book I just gobbled up; Divergent is one of my Favorite Books Read in 2011.
Presenting Lenore knows her dystopia young adult novels; her review of Divergent calls it ”a high-stakes, clever, compelling novel.” (Warning: slight spoiler there about what faction Tris selects. So don’t click if you don’t want to know; on the other hand, Tris makes her choice by page 47).