Why I didn’t finish ‘Divergent’

February 8, 2016 at 5:24 pm Leave a comment

Divergent_(book)_by_Veronica_Roth_US_Hardcover_2011It should not be news at this point that I am open to reading YA fiction. Twilight, Matched, Uglies, The Selection, The Hunger Games, etc., all YA fiction with sort of interesting premises and huge fan followings. As a student of popular literature, I figure, if a book has a huge following, it has to be doing something right.

That’s also true of Veronica Roth’s Divergent. This is the first novel in a hugely popular series about Tris, a young woman who takes an aptitude test meant to help her choose one of five “factions,” which will determine her future. Born into Abnegation, the faction defined by selflessness, Tris is used to putting others first. However, when she takes the test, she discovers she’s “divergent” — not so easily sorted or categorized. Though Tris is free to choose whatever faction she wants, in theory, she shows qualities of three of the factions, which is apparently dangerous. Tris chooses Dauntless, a faction defined by fearlessness, and is launched into a world she knows nothing about while trying to figure out why she’s different.

On its face, this is an excellent story. With more self-awareness than YA heroines tend to exhibit, Tris realizes when forced to choose a faction that her choice defines her and reflects her; if she chooses Abnegation, she really would be putting all others before her self, an ultimate act of Abnegation. She refuses Erudite, a faction defined by pride in intelligence, for unknown reasons. Her choice to enter the Dauntless not only reflects her desire to be brave, it actually makes her brave. She acknowledges that fear should not run her life, and that fear isn’t a reason to not do something.

Once she enters the Dauntless faction, she continues to be a great role model for any girl who feels like she doesn’t quite fit in. She’s strong, unwilling to take dumb risks but not scared to ignore her fear and jump if it’s worthwhile. She will climb a giant Ferris wheel and ignore her fear, since she knows it’s relatively safe; she will defy Dauntless leaders to help a friend.

It’s fascinating to watch Tris learn to fight, as well, showing a growing awareness of her body and a sense of agency, a sense that she’s more than her body, but that it can work for her. Tris’ former faction taught her to ignore her body, mostly, but she slowly learns to take pride in its strength and to take ownership of it. That’s a very powerful message for a young girl. Parents might not love its pro-tattoo stance, but that’s pretty minor.

Anyway, all of this was great. Really, really interesting. And if a few of the characters are flat at times, well…it’s a YA novel, and the “baddies” are not necessarily expected to be super nuanced.

What made me unable to finish it was Tris and Four’s relationship. Four is one of the Dauntless instructors, whose job is to train new recruits. From the beginning, we know he’s a good guy, dedicated to teamwork and bravery rather than bullying and pointless shows of strength. We know that he can be a leader, but he’s not, and is simply not attracted to the type of power the other leaders crave. And we know that Tris thinks he thinks she’s weak.

In fact, Tris continually misinterprets Four’s comments and actions. I realize that Four is meant to be a mystery, an enigma, but…to a normal human being, Four’s actions are pretty transparent. He likes Tris, thinks she’s smart and strong and pretty, admires her chutzpah and probably has been staring at her butt this whole time. But Tris thinks he thinks she’s weak and somewhat irritating.

Even though this might get annoying, considering how smart Tris is and how good she otherwise is at reading social dynamics, that’s not why I stopped. I stopped because of Tris’ insistence that she doesn’t know why she finds herself distracted by Four, constantly wondering where he is and noticing what he’s doing and thinking about things he said.

Reader, I know why. You know why. Even Tris sort of knows why — she wants to jump his bones (though she doesn’t put it in those terms, naturally). That’s it. End of story.

Now, since Tris and Four manage to have several conversations and become friends of sorts, possibly this physical attraction can become something more lasting, something substantial. But why this insistence that she has no idea how she feels? Do teenage girls really experience this absolute confusion about their own feelings? Why this complete denial of any physical attraction when it’s obvious to everyone from the get-go?

If not for the inevitable revelation near the end that Four and Tris love each other, I’d say it’s simple prudishness. But that can’t be it. And this theme is not unique to Roth — it appears in The Hunger Games as Katniss tries to figure out who she loves more, Peeta or Gale; it appears in The Selection, when America can’t decide how she feels about Prince Maxin; it appears in Matched, when what’s-her-face can’t figure out why she feels so drawn to Kai, and not her assigned Match.

I get that love can be confusing. I really do. (Corey has ample electronic evidence of my own confusion about love in various circumstances.) But pure attraction, which is what Tris is feeling in the first part of this novel, is rarely this befuddling. America’s confusion comes from feeling attracted to Aspen but actually liking Maxin as a person and a friend; Katniss faces a similar dilemma, complicated by societal pressures and also the fact that she’ll probably be murdered if she admits she is in love with Gale.

But with Tris, it’s just…it should be so easy. She likes a boy as a person while also dwelling for paragraphs about how his hand felt on her waist. They seem to agree on a lot of important topics, and also she likes the way his muscles look. Tris, Dauntless as she is, should be leaping into this relationship head first, not sitting around wondering what is happening to her. Tris deserves better, and ultimately, I did, too.

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Entry filed under: Children and Young Adult. Tags: , , , , .

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