Sunday, February 23, 2014

Mother-Daughter Book Club: Divergent

A few months ago, my teenage daughter and I saw a "coming attraction" trailer for a new movie called Divergent. In it, a young girl comes of age in a future society in which people are assessed and put into one of five factions based on their personality traits. As with most of these set-ups (Hunger Games, anyone?), the system is corrupt, the people (especially those who still need acne medicine) are exploited, heroes arise, authority is challenged, much mayhem ensues. The whole things ends on one mother of a cliffhanger and we all wait breathlessly for part two.

"We're totally gonna see that!" my daughter proclaimed, as I knew she would. But she then added "I have to read the book first."

Sniff, sniff. As you can imagine, I was proud. Very proud.

For Christmas, my daughter had asked for (and received) a new dressage saddle. Ka-ching! It was understood there would be no other presents. (Of course, it was also understood that I would break my own rule and get her at least a handful of other lesser gifts so we could still have our joyful, cluttered Christmas morning.) I looked for Divergent and found that in the not-always-logical world of shopping online, I could buy the 3-volume hardcover set (Divergent, Insurgent, Allegiance) with free shipping for less than the softcover versions à la carte. Well, I thought, I hope she likes it.

Major understatement.

My daughter devoured Divergent. The novel, an ambitious first by a fairly young author Veronica Roth, weighs in at 496 pages, although the type is fairly generous in size. Still, I was impressed by how quickly it was completed. Even with my daughter's attention necessarily distracted by William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar for Honors English and post-revolutionary France's Louis XVIII for AP World History.

"You have to read this, Mom!"

Under her supervision, I had already read all three Hunger Games books (not to mention all four Twilight — now, there's a week I'll never get back). Meanwhile, I'm two thirds through my own Dickens curriculum (self-inflicted — don't ask), so I welcomed the diversion of Divergent. Aside from the actual writing (which is engaging and fast-paced though hardly a work of literary fine art), here are some pros and cons:

The hero is a girl. A petite (as we are told ... um ... like a thousand times), but an enormously brave and determined one.

This girl (Tris), along with the other girls in the faction she chooses (Dauntless), doesn't seem to mind getting the sh*t kicked out of her on a regular basis. I was reminded of Katniss Eberdeen, but at least in The Hunger Games, Katniss had a bow and arrow between her and her opponents. In Divergent, it's all about the cracked ribs, the broken nose, the sliced ear, the gunshot wounds. Lots of blood, lots and lots of blood.

And, the girls get beat up just as much as the boys. There is no special treatment, no dispensation for the weaker sex. Pummel or be pummeled.

Equality at last? (Um, no thanks.)

There is a convoluted logic to the whole thing. This is really the key to dystopian fiction. With its roots firmly planted in 1984 (which, happily, my daughter will read later this year for school), Brave New World, and the later Handmaid's Tale, the genre takes societal attitudes and laws to the extreme, but in a way that feels somehow plausible. In this way, it's like really good science fiction but without the aliens and genetically engineered creatures from the black lagoon.

And, as I mentioned earlier, Divergent moves; it moves fast. You do care about Tris. She may not be Elizabeth Bennet, but she's a voice of immature reason in a grownup world that's deeply out of whack.

So far, so good, right? Onward to my objection then (there's really just the one).

All in all, Divergent sounds like a fairly feminist book whether you want to drink the dystopian Kool-Aid or not. Unfortunately though, my single biggest issue with it (aside from the unapologetically mercenary use of formula) is that Roth falls back into swooning heroine territory every time Tris notices or is (gasp!) noticed by her hunky trainer Four. We've just read (suffered through) several pages of brutal hand-to-hand combat in which tiny Tris gets her head served back on a juicy platter. Then (gasp!), Four looks her way. She turns to mush. Then (gasp!), Four touches her shoulder. She melts completely. Truly, this resilient little fighter goes gaga at the mere idea of the much older (she's sixteen; he's eighteen — gasp! gasp!) boy's attention to the tune of:

"As he reached for the target, his hand brushed the inside of my wrist. A tremor of electricity ran up my arm. I didn't know what was happening. I was terrified, but I liked it."

All right, I'm paraphrasing, but you get the idea. One sideways glance from the hero and our heroine's bosom is heaving pretty quickly. I'm not sure whether to be happy that some semblance of romance still exists in Tris's kick ass or get your ass kicked world — or to roll my eyes. Sheesh.

Divergent and all the other YA titles like it lend themselves beautifully to the movies. The phenomenon of The Hunger Games franchise is no accident, and I have confidence that Tris and Four will share similar success on the big screen. I admit, the genre will never be my favorite (give me some Jane Austen and a lovely "cuppa" anytime), but I'm not the target audience. Nevertheless, my daughter is reading when she could be texting. She's talking to me about a novel when she could be sulking in her room. 

So, thank you, Veronica Roth. "May the odds be ever in your favor."

Oops, wrong book.

"The future belongs to those who know where they belong."

Peace, out.

If you enjoyed this post, I invite you to order a copy of my new book Lovin' the Alien at   

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