Perks is a weird little book. It’s written as a series of letters from lead character Charlie, a quirky and potentially clinically depressed freshman who shortly into the school year befriends a group of decidedly cooler seniors, including brother-sister duo Patrick and Sam, the former openly gay (which, in a My So-Called Life sort of way, appears to be simultaneously brave and routine at their high school) and the latter the immediate object of Charlie’s bumbling affections. Over the course of the school year, Charlie experiences a series of teenage rites of passage: His first party, his first hookup, his first pot brownie, etc. In some situations, Charlie’s mildly autistic inability to read social cues comes across as endearing, while at other moments—such as when, during a game of truth or dare, he’s dared to kiss the prettiest girl in the room and goes for Sam instead of his girlfriend—Charlie fails miserably at being what every 15-year-old really wants to be in high school: at least normal enough to fit in with a group of friends. Continue reading
Divergent is set in a dystopian Chicago, where society is divided into five factions, each founded on respect for a particular virtue: Candor (honesty), Abnegation (selflessness), Dauntless (bravery), Amity (peace) and Erudite (intelligence). Each faction reveres their chosen virtue to a fault: the Candor are transparent but brash, the Abnegation selfless but sheltered, the Dauntless courageous but reckless, the Amity complacent but ambivalent and the Erudite astute but overly pragmatic. On an appointed day each year, all sixteen-year-olds in Chicago 2.0 must choose the faction to which they will belong for the rest of their lives. Notably, those who select a faction other than the one in which they were raised agree to an all but certain exiling from the friends and family they’ve always known.
From page one, Divergent falls in line with its predecessors in the Young Adult Dystopia (let’s call it YAD) genre: Abnegation-raised Beatrice shocks her family when she decides to switch factions, and shocks absolutely no one when she meets a “sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating” boy in her new community. Faction initiation reveals vulnerabilities; love blossoms; a treacherous plot is discovered; a battle is fought.
What makes Divergent interesting—dare I say mildly unique—is that its conflict doesn’t rely on the avarice or corruption of a single person or body of people. Sure, there are instigators in the war that’s ultimately waged among factions, but said war isn’t the byproduct of an immoral central government (see: The Hunger Games, Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451). No one’s fighting evil vampires (Twilight, The Strain) or rebelling against dubious biological conditioning (The Handmaid’s Tale, Never Let Me Go, Brave New World again). Rather, Divergent pits virtue against virtue, ideal against ideal, and good intentions against a paved road to Hell. This facet of the novel—a central fight that’s more Hufflepuff vs. Gryffindor than peasant vs. king—makes it special, and in some sense a better read for teenagers. “Would you rather be always honest or always brave?” is a more valuable question than “Would you rather be poor and oppressed or not poor and oppressed?”