“Divergent,” the new young adult novel by Veronica Roth, was released May 3, a bestseller before it hit the bookstores. The protagonist is a 16-year-old girl, who, along with her peers in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian Chicago, will be required to decide whether she will remain in Abnegation, the faction with whom she has lived her whole life, or choose another group with whom to live the rest of it. The remainder of this review contains “spoilers,” so those who have not yet read this book – which Publishers Weekly said “is almost impossible to turn away” – should be aware.
The population of Chicago – readers are not offered information (at this time) about anywhere else – is divided into five “factions,” each devoted to and named for the virtue its adherents believe is most important to an optimally functional society. They are Abnegation (selflessness), to which group Beatrice (Tris) Prior’s family belongs; Candor (honesty); Dauntless (the brave); Amity (peacefulness and harmony) and the Erudite (the learned).
All are tested to find out to which group he or she has affinity; every individual chooses where he or she will go. As far as everyone knows, people are attuned to one virtue. Tris, it turns out, is not – she is a divergent, and has more than one affinity. The choice will be harder for her than for others, especially since she has been urgently advised by the tester herself not to tell anyone about her divergence. Tris will have to decide for herself – by herself – what to do when the time comes to make her choice.
When Tris chooses to join the Dauntless, whose every test is a risk or a physical or emotional challenge – and often both – she realizes she may well never see her parents or her brother again. Indeed, her brother, who chose in the same ceremony as she, chose Erudite, to the surprise of all.
It transpires that “orientation” among the Dauntless is dangerous, scary and difficult. Indeed, it can lead to untimely and early death, as happens in Tris’s first train ride, en route to the Dauntless headquarters. It is appalling, but Tris has made her decision and must stick to it or become one of the Factionless – and that, she fears, would be far worse.
The next section of the book follows Tris through making friends and enemies while being tested and trained. The testing, assessment and training continues through an unusually large portion of the book; it is exciting and suspenseful, and subplots begin to emerge like bubbles in boiling oil. Teasers, too, are being set out for future volumes, and they are mostly enticing. It is, however, despite what is required of Tris and her companions, a largely passive means of delving into one’s identity, but perhaps for that reason particularly appropriate for this century.
It is not until very late in the book that a real, overarching plot emerges. A brief, exhilarating war takes place; some main characters survive with Tris. Ms. Roth does not pull her punches with regard to who lives and who dies. Nor is Tris allowed to keep her characteristic multiplicity of attributes to herself.
Despite the imbalance, this is a structure that works. Ms. Roth says the testing and training section was originally shorter, but readers, including her editor, liked it enough to ask for more and she obliged. Readers do learn a lot about all the characters in this way, and while perhaps as a single novel it might be considered indulgent, as part of one huge, exciting novel, why, it is barely past the introduction.
Veronica Roth, 23, whose family lives in Barrington, went to Carleton College in Minnesota for a year. The school did not have a writing program, though, and, she says, she “wanted to be back in Chicago,” so she transferred to Northwestern University. She now makes Evanston her home. “Evanston is great,” she says, “because there are so many places I can work.” She does a lot of her writing in coffee shops: “I really do! And Barrington has only one coffee shop!” she says.
She was born in New York, but her father’s work in energy trading took the family to Hong Kong and Germany when she was growing up. They finally wound up in Barrington, where they still live. Mother, Barb Ross, is an Art Institute of Chicago-trained painter who prefers watercolors, and her stepfather, Frank Ross, with whom she is close, is a financial consultant for landscaping companies. Siblings Ingrid and Karl live in the Chicago area; Ingrid is in marketing at Alli Sports, and Karl is a musician.
Ms. Roth has been writing since she was a child – “since she was too old to play pretend,” she says. She wrote “Divergent” while a student at NU. The book debuted at no. 6 on the New York Times Children’s Chapter Books Bestsellers List and is at no. 7 five weeks later. “I got swept into this,” says the author.
“I wrote the book a long time ago,” she says, “and then I was on the lookout for agents. I revised a little with her [Joanna Stampfel-Volpe of Nancy Coffey Literary]. She put [the book] out everywhere. Four days later HarperCollins was on top of it.” The HC imprint Katharine Tegen Books won the ensuing war with several other publishers and released “Divergent” in May.
Ms. Roth’s appealing combination of enthusiasm and shyness were evident at a May 2 reading event at Winnetka’s Book Stall not long after the RoundTable interviewed her. She is a very tall young woman who appears pleased, proud of her achievement and yet disbelieving that she has had this good fortune. Her mother was in the audience, as well as friends, her agent, representatives of the publisher – and fans. The day before the book formally appeared on shelves, some had already managed to read advance copies.
In her blog, Ms. Roth says, “Writing used to feel safe because it was so private,” but that, with revision of “Divergent,” this was no longer true. The first book and its revision were fine, she says, because she was not aware of others reading it. With the second volume that she is currently revising, it is different. She says she feels quite a bit of anxiety with this one, because of the pressure to meet the expectations she feels others have of her work. In order to continue without being oppressed by anxiety, she says, “I try to keep myself away from people’s opinions – reviews – I create a little bubble for myself so nobody’s watching.”
She says she carries a great deal of anxiety, and that she wrote a book about bravery is significant for her: “I longed for that quality of hers [Tris, the novel’s 16-year-old protagonist] that is so distinctive to me: She chooses the true thing instead of the safe thing. And what she discovers is that the freedom to become who she wants to be is worth the danger.”
This, one important thing Tris learns on her journey of self-discovery, is something Ms. Roth says she would like readers to take away from her book. She also wants people to “get her beliefs about human nature … that humans can twist anything into evil.” In “Divergent,” they have done so with the virtues that were made into communities to prevent evil. Ms. Roth says she wants to show that “virtue has to be a means to an end rather than an end in itself.”
When asked about the enormously popular book “The Hunger Games,” to which her book has been compared and does bear similarities, and other dystopian literature, she says, they “helped me to take my own books seriously. Reading books similar in genre helps you to realize that your own writing can be meaningful.”
An inside look at Ms. Roth and what makes Tris tick can be found at the author’s blog, http://veronicarothbooks.blogspot.com/.