I was really excited to read the Divergent trilogy. So excited that, when faced with a week-long wait at the library, I instead drove straight to Barnes & Noble and paid full price for the three books plus the collection of short stories. This excitement began when I saw the film version of Divergent last fall and fell in love with the character of Tris, thinking of her as the new-and-improved Katniss (I do like Katniss, but thought her character was destroyed in the third novel by her PTSD, her general abundance of inertia, and a bad plot). I don’t read a lot of YA, unfortunately, but I do like dystopia, and YA dystopia is fun and interesting and as an added bonus, comes with a lot of ass-kicking heroines. So yeah, my expectations were high.
If you’ve read the trilogy, then I assume you know about The Big Bad Ending to Allegiant. Before I started the books, I heard a lot of people complaining about it and hating it, but because I hate surprises and have to know everything, I found out about the ending before I started reading. And I was okay with it. I thought it must make sense in the course of the story. I have read books where someone sacrifices themselves for another, where main characters die, and even though it’s heartbreaking the way books can be, that grief I felt was always assuaged by the certainty that the ending was cathartic, satisfying, sacrificial—the “good sad.”
I don’t think this was like that.
But let’s start at the beginning. Divergent is awesome. Beatrice Prior is in a muddle. In a world where one must choose which “faction” to belong in forever: Abnegation, Candor, Dauntless, Erudite, or Amity, Beatrice feels like she doesn’t measure up to her faction, the selfless Abnegation. At sixteen years old, Beatrice makes a courageous decision: to leave her family forever and join the raucous, risk-taking, dangerous Dauntless faction, the protectors of the city, the gun-toting, tattooed and pierced adrenaline junkies. She goes from a quiet, insecure Abnegation girl to “Tris”: one of the strongest new Dauntless members. Her growth and strengthening identity make this book wonderful to read, and there’s also a healthy bit of romance in it. I loved Divergent, movie and book, and I eagerly began the sequel.
Insurgent. Insurgent fell into the trap that the third Hunger Games book did: the heroine stops being interesting because she’s traumatized by everything that has happened to her. The world building falls way short of expectations. The plot is messy and confusing. None of the characters, save for the main two, are interesting in the least. And even Tris, who was so strong and capable in the first novel, becomes a shade of her former self. After seeing both her parents die, she decides she no longer wants to live, and spends most of the book trying desperately to get herself killed. Her boyfriend, Tobias, gets tired of it and constantly fights with her, and frankly, I can’t blame him. Insurgent was exhausting because all of the things that made Divergent so interesting—the characters, the world, the character development—instantly vanished.
And then there was Allegiant. The Big Bad One. I felt like the plot of Allegiant was hanging on by a thread, and honestly, by this time, so was I. Characters appeared and disappeared and I didn’t care about any of them. Tris and Tobias are still together, and their relationship does grow and evolve into something strong and healthy. I loved this quote from Allegiant, after the two have a major conflict and almost break up:
I fell in love with him. But I don’t just stay with him by default as if there’s no one else available to me. I stay with him because I choose to, every day that I wake up, every day that we fight or lie to each other or disappoint each other. I choose him over and over again, and he chooses me.
I think that’s a wonderful quote, especially in a YA novel. These books show the arc of a strong relationship, without love triangles, without dependence on a partner, without the insecure song-and-dance of a YA heroine thinking she’s not pretty enough for her boyfriend. Tris and Tobias are equals, and that’s one of the biggest reasons I kept reading.
And then Tris dies.
I think the biggest problem inherent in this trilogy is the weak world-building and the weak plot. It’s not really dystopia; the faction system works to the extent that it ensures people’s happiness as long as they conform. It’s more of an allegory of human nature than an oppressive government system. People are allowed to choose their faction. These books suffer from the lack of a “villain,” so to speak. In most dystopian novels, the “villain” may be one person, it may be an idea, it may be a government system, it may be human nature itself. In these books, the “villain” constantly changes, and with it, the thing the characters must fight. It’s all confused, muddled, and because of that, it’s very difficult to care.
But I kept caring about Tris, despite the fact that her character becomes one-dimensional. Instead of a compassionate, selfless, strong person, she becomes this obnoxious fighting machine. I also cared about Tobias, obsessed with his fears and determined to be a good man despite his penchant for violence and his damaged childhood. But then Tris dies unnecessarily, their love is for naught, and I just tossed the book aside in disappointment. I had stopped caring about the story long before the ending.
I still love Divergent and most of my disappointment stems from the fact that this story could have been something great, with proper plot and world building. The characters could have fought for something worth fighting for, without all the messy confusion that stems from poor writing. There were brief, shining moments, but ultimately, they weren’t enough to salvage the story. Divergent started off so promising, but it ended up breaking all of those promises.