Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Divergent Trilogy by Veronica Roth

In case you have been under a rock that does not have any teenagers anywhere near by, here's what you need to know about the trilogy:
"Working together, these five factions have lived in peace for many years, each contributing to a different sector of society. Abnegation has fulfilled our need for selfless leaders in government; Candor has provided us with trustworthy and sound leaders in law; Erudite has supplied us with intelligent teachers and researchers; Amity has given us understanding counselors and caretakers; and Dauntless provides us with protection from threats both within and without. But the reach of each faction is not limited to these areas. We give one another far more than can be adequately summarized. In our factions, we find meaning, we find purpose, we find life." I think of the motto I read in my Faction History textbook: Faction before blood. More than family, our factions are where we belong. Can that possibly be right?

Young adult novels seem to come in two genres lately: the Normal Kid Who Discovers a Secret World That They're Suddenly a Part Of (a la Harry Potter, Twilight, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children) and the World Run By Suspicious Government That Teenage Hero Must Fight (a la Uglies, Hunger Games, Maze Runner) - this trilogy falls into the latter category. 

Beatrice (later changed to Tris) begins the novel as a member of the Abnegation faction. Abnegation wears grey. Abnegation takes the stairs so that other factions can take the elevator. Abnegation lives in cinder block homes without decoration. Abnegation does the service work that no one else wants to do. Abnegation is completely selfless. Abnegation members are the only people who can be trusted to have power because they are the only ones who don't want it. 

"To some the sight [of my plain neighborhood] might be gloomy, but to me [its] simplicity is comforting. The reason for the simplicity isn't disdain for uniqueness, as other factions have sometimes interpreted it. Everything - our houses, our clothes, our hairstyles - is meant to help us forget ourselves and to protect us from vanity, greed, and envy, which are just forms of selfishness. If we have little, and want for little, and we are all equal, we envy no one. I try to love it."

Couples are made within a faction and kids are raised in their faction until their 16th birthday when they take a virtual-reality-type test to determine which faction they are best suited for. The results are known only by the test giver (a stranger volunteer) and the teenager. A few days later the entire community comes together to watch teenagers pick their new factions: will they stay with their family and the faction who raised them or will they leave everything behind - including almost all contact with their parents and siblings - to join a different faction?

Beatrice's results are inconclusive - she COULD be Abnegation, Dauntless, or Erudite, but she doesn't REALLY belong in any of them. She's labelled Divergent, her tester falsifies her results, and warns her that she cannot tell anyone - ANYONE - about being Divergent which also means she can't find out what it means and why it's dangerous. She immediately eliminates Erudite as a possibility and is stuck between Dauntless and Abnegation. Of course, no one is going to read 1500 pages about providing food for the factionless (homeless) and not having strong emotions and not asking questions because they indicate curiosity which is a selfish desire and not touching or kissing while flirting, so I don't think it's a spoiler to say she decides to join the badass, tatted up, pierced, punky Dauntless. 

The first act of her initiation is to jump off a speeding train onto a rooftop - one kid refuses and chooses to become factionless, and one kid dies. The very next step is to jump several stories into a dark pit without knowing what's at the bottom. Dauntless initiation involves self defense, combat, and mental stamina (more virtual reality - except instead of having to make choices you're stuck in scenarios with your worst fears - the more scared you get, the worse it is for you) with real violence occurring. No character is safe in Veronica Roth's world - she isn't afraid to hurt, maim, or kill. If any of this is intriguing, you should absolutely read them, particularly as the pages fly by (I finished all three in less than a week). The trilogy follows Tris's discovery of what exactly it means to be Divergent and where Divergent fit into the government as a whole. A heck of a lot happens that is not worth spoiling.

Outside of the interesting premise, what makes the trilogy awesome (without saying too much about the plot) are a few things which are outstanding in their own right but also outstanding in comparison to the more recent popular young adult novels:

  • the protagonist is a real - not accidental - badass 
Bella never kills a human, not even as a baby vampire, and one of the so-called redeeming traits of Katniss is that in the first Hunger Games she doesn't *really* kill anyone in a hand-to-hand person-to-person way - she's always a step removed from the action. These are cruel government regimes; our heroes are not going to escape without getting dirty and it's selling the audience short to not give them an honest view of what are essentially war stories. Tris is trained as a combatant and acts like one which is what ANY person in her situation would have to do to survive. 
  • the protagonist isn't pretty 
I am tired of the protagonist girl who is soooo pretty, except she doesn't know it, except the really Impossibly Hot Guy does know it, and thus she gets the really Impossibly Hot Guy without being conceited or having any of the other pretty girl personality traits that no one likes in real life. Tris tells her Love Interest, "I'm not trying to be self-deprecating. I just don't get it...I'm not pretty...I'm not ugly, but I am certainly not pretty," and he responds, "Fine. You're not pretty. So? I like how you look. You're deadly smart. You're brave. And even though you found out about [that horrible thing from my past]...you aren't giving me that look." Teenagers - and screw it, all people - need to understand that we are not all supermodels AND WE WILL ALL STILL FIND PEOPLE TO LOVE US. I love that she accepts her face and is honest, and he accepts her face and is honest. 

  • the romantic relationships are healthy
There is no Bella/Edward/Jacob or Katniss/Peeta/Gale love triangle filled with unhealthy obsessions, lies, and deceptions. You know how in Twilight and the Hunger Games characters are always lying to each other for each other's benefits? And then fighting about it but accepting that the lies were okay because they stay together and keep lying? Yeah, that doesn't happen here. 

"I'm reliable. You can trust me. And you can let me be the judge of what I can handle."
"Okay. But no more lies. Not ever."
I feel stiff and squeezed, like my body was just forced into something too small for it. But hat's not how I want the conversation to end, so I reach for his hand.
"I'm sorry I lied to you," I say. "I really am."
"Well," he says. "I didn't mean to make you feel like I didn't respect you." 

A mature conversation about their legitimate not-over-dramatized feelings that ends with an honest apology - THIS is the kind of relationship problem solving that I want to see in my own relationship, in my students' relationships, and in my books. More of this please. But wait! Twilight is based on a toxic relationship that creates horrible depression and co-dependence, surely this book has that because it's such a popular formula, right? Wrong-o my Twihard friends. 

"If we stay together, I'll have to forgive you over and over again, and if you're still in this, you'll have to forgive me over and over again too, so forgiveness isn't the point. What I really should have been trying to figure out is whether we were still good for each other or not."

I love that these teenagers who have gone through incredibly traumatic experiences together (we're in book three at this point) have actually matured because of those experiences and are able to have an adult idea in their head of what a relationship is made up of and what the purpose of one is. Forgiveness is maybe an overstatement, but a part of a working relationship is definitely the ability to choose to let some things go. Not every incident needs to be a dramatic fight, and the more important question is always whether the relationship is still positive and healthy and productive.

I applaud Roth for creating an incredibly compelling series that breaks many of the formulas set up by the previous generation of young adult books. The fact that this series is verrrry  popular warms my heart. She gives the audience their full credit and assumes that if we're reading a book about an oppressive government regime then we are probably capable of handling the details of all the effects of that system. She also gives the characters their full credit. These teenagers have to grow up fast in this world and they do; they're not so overly mature as to be unbelievable, but she doesn't treat them like they're little kids or dumb teenagers either. They make hard decisions, they do what they think is right, sometimes they make mistakes - like we all do - and have to deal with those consequences.

This series will, however, wreck your soul. I finished the third one sobbing. I'm a crier anyway (the LEGO movie made me cry), but I haven't cried like that since the epilogue of Harry Potter. 

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