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Divergent and Insurgent: Reading for Pleasure and Diminishing Returns

reading-for-pleasureSeldom have I been so excited about a book while reading it and then so utterly disappointed by its conclusion. So it was with Vernoica Roth’s *Divergent* and then *Insurgent*. I have no comment on the final book in the trilogy because I won’t be reading it. Why did I bother with the second, you ask? Well, I was so captivated by the first half of *Divergent* that I went and bought the second book and lest I be one to squander my (tiny) book buying budget, I had to read the second out of deference to Not Wasting Book Money. The gap between my enthusiasm and my eventual feeling about the book is hard to retrospectively bridge. That is to say, it’s hard to find something good to say about the series when I now have so many complaints, but I *must* have found something worthy and exciting if I was willing to pay for it (note: I am not library-monogamous, just library-preferential).

So what did I enjoy? The world-building aspects of this series are terrific. Like The Night Circus, the physical space imagined by the novel is captivating. So, too, the initial characterization of Tris (a characterization that takes a decided turn for the wooden and flat as she reacts and acts without any consequence to character development) and her confusion of what and who she is. The mystery elements: where are we in time and space? What kinds of cultural, social, political forces are at work? What’s the allegory here? compel the reader to keep reading with an urgency and a pleasure often misplaced in Literature that wants to slow you down enough to savour each word or sentence.

Reading *Divergent* was certainly an exercise in reading for pleasure. In much of my graduate and undergraduate discussions of literature outside the classroom my peers expressed discomfort or disbelief that “reading for pleasure” might even be possible. Having such extensive training in being critics,  how, they wondered, might it be possible to turn this critical eye “off” long enough to enjoy a book? Trained to say “no” and “but,” (how) could we allow for appreciation and commendation? I suppose I could argue that the two aren’t mutually exclusive: it is possible to find pleasure and retain critical faculties. I think I could also argue that books get read – or we read – with different intents and purposes. That the same book can be read by the same reader with different foci and attention. Putting aside the precision and attention of close reading and allowing – or abdicating? – attention to the pleasures of plot and character might well be possible (I think they are). It’s tempting to be self-depricating and say I was just a poor critic, unable to notice that worth being critical. But I’m not: I’m a good reader. So I suppose it’s an argument for the dialectic: that a reader can take pleasure from a text and simultaneously be aware of its problematic bits. *Divergent* has troublesome politics, Tris and Four have an imbalanced sexual relationship and her gender gets worked out and worked over in disturbing ways, choice and freedom get bizarrely dichotomized against violence and power.

So if it’s true that I could enjoy *Divergent* and still be aware of its problematic politics, when did I stop enjoying it altogether? I’m tempted to say it was when Four’s named turned to Tobias and I stopped being able to remember him as a sexy and mysterious instructor and could only think of him as a predatory creep, but I think it’s more basic: I stopped enjoying *Divergent* and I disliked all of *Insurgent* because the writing was bad. Really, really bad. Written for a movie and without the subtlety to pretend otherwise kind of bad. Written without the attention of an editor bad. Written as if the reader might not have ever read anything else before bad. BAD. Which is not to say that *Insurgent* doesn’t have its share of ideological issues, just that before the reader can start to think about those she has to get past the terrible writing, lack of character development and uninteresting plot. It will make a terrific movie, I’m sure, because it was written to one.

I almost wrote “Avoid both,” but I don’t think I should. *Divergent* is pure pleasure. Read it and enjoy. Just don’t – for the love of God (and boy does Veronica Roth love God – capital G) bother with the second or third.


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