I was really excited to read Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy because I’d had multiple friends describe them to me as “The Hunger Games but better.” The movie trailer made the books look even more promising, but after reading the entirety of Divergent and part of Insurgent, I have to say that I was severely disappointed. I feel like I am suddenly in the opposite position I was in with my Hunger Games posts, because I am criticizing a series everyone seems to like, while before I was defending a series people have been prone to over criticize (you can read my two part blog post In Defense of the Hunger Games here [part 1] and here [part 2]). I tried not to be the type of person I condemned in my previous posts for demanding too much of The Hunger Games, but there is too much lacking in Divergent to ignore.
Like The Hunger Games, Divergent is set in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic United States, where the population has been divided into five factions. Each faction emphasizes a different character trait–bravery, selflessness, intelligence, truth, peace–in an effort to eradicate corruption. At the age of 16, citizens are tested to find out which faction they would fit best with, and then are given a choice to remain in their old faction or join a new one. Beatrice Prior’s test results come back inconclusive, and Tris is told that she is Divergent, someone who doesn’t fit into any single category. She is also warned not to tell anyone, because being Divergent is dangerous and undesirable. Tris decides to leave Abnegation, her old faction dedicated to selflessness, for Dauntless, the faction dedicated to bravery, and spends the rest of the book fighting her way through initiation.
I think all the problems I saw in the books arose from the same issue: Veronica Roth’s writing is sloppy and stilted, inhibiting her ability to portray complex characters, themes, and story lines. I spent an entire blog post defending Collins’ writing style in The Hunger Games, but while Roth’s style is similar to Collins’, Collins was able to effectively convey a compelling story while Roth does not. Here are a few examples of what I mean by stilted and choppy:
“Uriah jogs toward me. Lynn and Marlene are behind him. Lynn is holding a muffin.”
“I have gotten used to aching every time I move, so now I move better, but I am still far from healed.”
I found Roth’s descriptions of human movement to be unnatural and difficult to visualize. She focuses too much on exactly how people stand, what they do with their hands and feet, leaving nothing to the imagination: “One of his knees is bent next to my head and the other is curled beneath me so I’m sitting on his ankle. We are a jumble of limbs. I feel a harsh breath against my ear.”
There are 87 uses of the word “cheek” in Divergent alone, and about 25 of them are mentions of one character touching another’s cheek. That is not a thing I generally do in my daily life, even as a sign of affection for another person.
I understand that like The Hunger Games, Divergent is not meant to be a literary masterpiece, but even then I believe there is a certain amount of responsibility the author has toward the audience. I think the biggest difference is that Collins’ characters are compelling, while Roth’s writing style is too erratic to convey consistent, complex characters.The forced style of the writing leads to the forced feel of the characters and the mass inconsistencies in their personalities. While Collins succeeds in infiltrating Katniss’ head, Tris’ thoughts seem forced.
The forced style of the writing also contributed to an inability to properly convey emotional complexities and difficult topics within the work, such as depression, suicide, and abuse. There is a certain responsibility an author holds when delving into such subjects, and, frankly, Roth’s sloppy portrayal trivialized them. Al’s suicide is portrayed as “cowardice” and “selfish,” which is a rather general blanket to be throwing over such a complex and multi-faceted issue. Likewise, Four’s abuse is trivialized in Tris’ extreme reaction to his father, meddling in something that is not her business.
The relationship between Tris and Four is also problematic, falling into the same trap that so many other young adult novels fall into: Tris is a girl, Four is a boy, therefore they must be destined for each other. Tris spends half her time with Four thinking about how hot he his and how much his muscles ripple. The only attraction for him seems to be that she came from the same faction he did. When they do finally get together, they spend more time making out than talking, leading me to believe their attraction to be purely physical. There is also a weird, repeated mention by other characters that Four is “too old” for Tris, because God forbid an 18-year-old boy fall for a 16-year-old girl.
I haven’t even mentioned the fact that there appeared to be no plot in this book until the last ten pages. Roth drills her readers through pages and pages of Tris going through Dauntless training camp, lulling the reader into believing there is a semblance of a plot without actually creating one. The title of the novel is Divergent, and as readers we learn early on that Tris is Divergent, and that Divergence is special and dangerous, but we never learn why. Roth attempts to weave a significance around the word that ultimately fails when the reader realizes he or she has no idea what that significance is past multiple characters making reverent mentions of the word. These last two points, more than anything, frustrated me, because even if your characterization is sub-par (which is generally the case with young adult novels), you should be able to crank out a half decent plot.
In conclusion, I do not recommend reading these books. If you want The Hunger Games, turn to them. You will find a much more constructive narration and compelling characterization there.