When Best Selling Doesn’t Mean Best Writing: The Mind Numbing Problems with Divergent

This post contains spoilers—the main one being that I think this book is terrible.

Never have I read a book that went off the rails so suddenly or so completely. The last act of this story is a crazy, train-wreck of a read. And I don’t mean that in a good way.

The Deceptively Mediocre Start

Labelling the first two thirds of this book “good” might be overstating it, but the ending is so bad that it almost makes the beginning appear better than it actually was.  In the first two acts of Divergent, author Veronica Roth follows a rather standard pattern of dystopian, YA literature. Corrupt government machinations, societal inequalities, parental ineptitude/irrelevance, the unformed “self” finding solace in friends and sexy boys—we’ve seen it all before.

This particular iteration of the tropes creates a world of Factions, or societal groups, each devoted to the preservation of one of five virtues—Candor, Erudite, Amity, Abnegation and Dauntless.  People in these groups are only supposed to express feelings or actions that coincide with their faction. So a Candor citizen will be honest, but not smart or kind or selfless or brave, and that’s okay with everyone.

This plays well with the adolescent delusion that they have the most complex and multi-faceted personalities of any human beings. The notion that their boundless selves cannot be dictated to by the restraints of soulless drones, such as parents and teachers, who obviously have no personality, finds life in this problematic scenario.

Tris, our heroine, if I must call her such, is Divergent, which means she experiences more than just one of the prescribed five qualities (though really she only exhibits 3 qualities–whiny, narcissistic and self-aware). This quality is somehow so dangerous that the powers that be will kill her for it, so she must keep it a secret.

Early Problems

It may already be apparent that even before the disastrous third act, the story has several problems. Five are especially grating.

1. The Singular Personality Trait

In addition to not reflecting the experience of any human being ever to have lived, limiting the majority of the characters in the story to only one personality trait creates a major problem.

One dimensional characters are boring.

Nothing is more one dimensional than prescribing, by virtue of the story’s essential premise, that most people other than Tris only see life one way. They only feel one thing. They only have one catalyst for action.

It leaves us with characters who are either dull and forgettable or are inconsistent with the established rules of this hypothetical world.

This not being a good book, it manages to do both.

Not a single character outside of Tris and maybe Four registers more than a mere blip on the reader’s emotional register. At the same time, Roth is not quite able to write characters that actually fit her premise and only behave according to their faction.

2. The Factionless

Since this is dystopia, not everyone succeeds in being a successful member of a faction. People flunk out of initiation and are sent to live “factionless” in cultural limbo somewhere in the city.  The assumed lack of societal structure inherent in the plight of the factionless betrays a deep ignorance of human society and behavior. People cast out of one group do not spend their lives aimlessly wandering the streets wishing to get back in.

Again this is evidence of the teenaged assumptions that anyone not a part of the “in crowd” must of course be dying to be a part and unable to function on their own.

One of Tris’s friends and rivals suffers an initiation-ending injury during training, and he is forced to leave and live factionless. His girlfriend drops out of initiation and goes with him because of true love and her irrelevance to the story.  The idea that this smart, strong, motivated young man with the loving support and companionship of his girlfriend would be unable to find kindred spirits among the factionless and manage just fine seems ridiculous.  Surely they would be able to build some kind of functioning society outside the purvey of the Factions.  Still the threat of living factionless persists throughout the entire novel as a fate worse than death and the ultimate motivation to succeed.

Roth’s characterization of the factionless also reflects an insufferable condescension towards manual labor. She describes the horrible fate of the factionless as being relegated to occupations such as janitorial jobs and construction. The horror!

Really? Construction? Cleaning? This is the fate worse than death? What world are you living in, Veronica Roth?

When I read that I almost pulled the disc out of the CD player and threw it out the car window, but it was from the library, so that would have been too much trouble.

3. The Dauntless

I’m sure the other Factions have their logical inconsistencies, but Dauntless gets the most ink in this book, so I’m going to pick on them.  Only the top 10 initiates get selected to join the Faction—even if 100 successfully complete the training. That’s 10 new members every year. How is that even remotely sustainable?

It’s unclear how large these factions are, but I doubt that 10 new bodies barely even begins to approach replacement levels. This is especially true when you realize that the oldest Dauntless person mentioned is 40. What they do with their old people is unclear, but since this is an indulgence in all adolescent weaknesses, it is irrelevant.

Also the Dauntless equation of Stupid + Dangerous=Brave leaves a lot to be desired.  Every time Tris describes her evolution from timid to brave she couches it in terms of her newfound nonchalance towards jumping onto speeding trains or off of buildings into dark holes.

Stupid is not brave; if it were, this would be the bravest book ever.

4. World building holes.

In addition to the specific problems I mentioned there are a number of gaps in Roth’s world building that make it hard to buy into her premise. I don’t really have a lot to say about them, but here are some of the more pressing questions:

-How big is this society?

-Is it just the city of Chicago?

-How many people live here?

-What exactly do the Dauntless protect the society from?

-What is up with the simulations exactly?

-Who runs the train?

-Why does it never slow down?

-Why don’t the Dauntless just board at a station?

-Does anyone else ride the train?

-What happened to the rest of the country?

-Are the people locked in or locked out?

The last question was hinted at during the book, but it was never developed. One can only assume that it was cut in favor of further description of how “electrically” charged Tris felt every time she touches Tobias, which is definitely a theme that needed more exploration.

5. Oh, the angst!

This is YA; I get it, but oh my goodness the angst!

The first person narration style does this book no favors. Tris comes across as whiny, narcissistic, myopic and just downright annoying.  I have not decided if this is terrible writing or a genius exploration into the teenage soul.

I’m leaning towards terrible writing.

The first person narration lacks any self-deprecation to make the limited point of view charming. There is no humor, not even a twinge of gallows humor, in Tris’s earnest and boring point of view. She may be excruciatingly self-aware, but that is not enough.

There is way too much talk about sex. The discussions aren’t graphic; they are just boring.  We could certainly do without the stream of consciousness description of each electric shock of each finger touching while you hold hands. Especially if some variant of “electric” is the only word you can find to describe it.

The Derailment

That was all from the good part. Now we get to where things get crazy.

Part of Dauntless training is navigating a hallucinogenic “fear landscape”, whoever can face and cope with their fears fastest wins. How exactly the fear landscapes work is confusing.

Because she is Divergent, Tris realizes that she is in a simulation, and can just work around the scenarios quickly because they are not real to her. However, when she enters Tobias’ fear landscape with him (it’s not explained how this is possible), they have a shared hallucination, and he is aware of her presence (even though he is not Divergent). She can manipulate his fears for him, but he still has to take some action.

I honestly don’t know.

Hallucinogenic simulations are a big part of the book. I question a society that submits to such mind-altering injections without question. I also question a book that relies on such a device to move the plot along, absolving characters of responsibility for bad actions and artificially generating conflict.

There is a conspiracy between the Erudite (smart people are evil) and the Dauntless (stupid is brave) to eradicate the Abnegation faction (selfless people are weak) because they run the government. All of the Dauntless are injected with a serum that puts them into some sort of simulation where they all take orders from a computer program.

Yeah, I don’t get it either.

Tris of course is not affected by this because she is Divergent. Four/Tobias is only partially affected. Dauntless begin slaughtering innocent and unarmed Abnegation people in what should be a really horrifying scene, but from inside Tris’s head it isn’t.

She tries to save her family. She ends up being saved by her mom, who used to be Dauntless and is pretty good with a gun and not quite as irrelevant as Tris had thought.  Too bad she gets killed saving Tris’s life.

And that is literally about all the emotional impact her death has on Tris or the story.

Tris needs to get to the simulation to stop the slaughter of the innocents, but mainly because Tobias is there under duress.

She takes a group of Abnegation, namely her father, brother and Tobias’s dad to stop the simulation. (Note: Tobias has some daddy issues. Oh the confrontations!)

While breaking into Dauntless headquarters, Tris’s dad is killed saving her life. (It is not a good day to be related to Tris.) She finds Tobias, but he is now under the power of the simulation and doesn’t recognize her. They fight a bit; he’s trying to kill her, but with true love and self-sacrifice she snaps him out of it.

Together they destroy the computer program and the Dauntless stop killing people, but now they have to run away. Taking Tris’s brother and Tobias’s dad they hop on a moving train and go.

Where the train is going is unclear. Based on previous information in the story, I had thought that the train just looped around the city, so I’m not sure how that would be helpful.

You remember all those people in Tris’s family that just died? All the other people that she shot and killed including her best friend’s boyfriend? No? Well neither does Tris.

She is on the train finally making out with Tobias in earnest…in front of his dad… and her brother… who also just lost both his parents.

The End.

Book over.

Conclusions

If it isn’t clear already, I do not recommend this book. Maybe there was no way for this book to end well, but this seems a bit unnecessarily bad.

I did see the movie, which is MUCH better than the book. It can’t quite fix all the problems, but it ends up being an adequate place holder until the next Hunger Games movie comes out. This is mostly due to the very likable performances by Shailene Woodley and Theo James.

If you think this review is overly mean, I will remind you that Veronica Roth has made a literal fortune off of this, so she probably doesn’t care what I think about it. At least she shouldn’t.

If you loved this book, I would be very interested to hear why.

Just please don’t say “You have to read the rest of the series” because that is not how books work.  The first book is supposed to make the reader WANT more books, not NEED more to extricate the author from the quagmire of her own creation.

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One thought on “When Best Selling Doesn’t Mean Best Writing: The Mind Numbing Problems with Divergent

  1. This trilogy is so often compared to ‘The Hunger Games’. It CAN’T compare.
    I’ve read the first book. It was easy enough to go through but I am now 12% into ‘Insurgent’ and I find that I just don’t care about what’s happening.
    On the other hand, I absolutely sped through ‘THG’ because it was that riveting.

    Like

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