Veronica Roth’s Divergent was a good plane read that started boring me, conveniently, right at the end of both the first book and the plane ride. I don’t care enough about what happens next to actually read the sequels; I might care enough to look up their plots on Wikipedia, though it’s been three days and I haven’t bothered yet. The book did make me slightly more interested in the movie, because Shailene Woodley is a better actor than the protagonist deserves, and the book certainly left her a gaping void of character to fill however she chooses. (Ditto Kate Winslet and the book’s villain, who was the victim of some weirdly specific authorial body-shaming. I look forward to seeing Winslet portray a woman whose characterization begins with “wears glasses to look smart” and ends with “pudge around the middle” and “stretch marks on her thighs.”)
Despite the somewhat obvious Hunger Games comparisons, Divergent reminded me much more strongly of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, particularly in its description of the colorless, repressed “Abnegation” society that the heroine rejects. I was sorry when she left it to go jump on and off of buildings and trains (that apparently never bother stopping, in this city that has a large caste of menial laborers but doesn’t bother employing any of them as commuter rail conductors … but moving on, pun not really intended.)
Divergent made me miss The Giver, and its emphasis on the quiet, seemingly rational horrors that the best dystopias perpetrate. I’m so much more interested in the world-building in these types of books, in the theory of dystopias than in their often over-the-top effects. (It’s why the second Hunger Games installment is my favorite; it opens up the world that created the child-gladiator rituals and shows us how it works.) The setup and evolution of these once-ideal societies, and the bureaucratic souring of those ideals, is generally so much more interesting than the killing that results. At the very least, the killing has to be earned by the world-building — and that is definitely where Divergent fell down the most for me.
I’ve read way too many contemporary YA books that kill characters easily and en masse, which makes it pretty hard to like the protagonists who shrug at the deaths and move on with their hero-ing. Hunger Games gets a pass, because whatever other flaws there are in the books, the murder of children is sold from the very first pages and doesn’t happen lightly. Even early Harry Potter did a good job with not killing kids cheaply or as window dressing, before its eventual devolution into mass casualties and death-by-curtains. But Divergent throws a few kids off a train and then progresses to sociopathic bullying, suicides and casual maiming, all of which are really just a backdrop for our heroine to score a boyfriend. By the time Roth progresses to brainwashing, gun battles with distant parents and friends dying casually, it was hard to see any of the violence having an impact on the narrator — and so the only impact it had on this reader was to make me stop reading.