I’ve been struggling with how to review the Divergent series for months now. I’m having trouble because I honestly can’t figure out how I really feel about them: there are parts I really appreciate, like that our hero Tris possesses an active sexuality that only freaks her out a little, and she pursues a dude that she likes (Divergent). Some parts were incredibly tedious to me, like our hero Tris’ many stupid fights with her dumb boyfriend, I DON’T CARE, GOD, BOTH OF YOU SHUT UP (Insurgent). And there were parts that genuinely baffled me, like most of Allegiant.
Spoilers for the books and X-Men II in the next two paragraphs.
Tris dies at the end, sacrificing herself for like everybody she knows, and there’s a bunch of confusing bullshit about whether on not we’re supposed to feel okay with that, and I can see both sides of the story. The author, Veronica Roth, explains (which I think is sort of cheating on her part) that the series is about sacrifice and Tris’ journey to understanding what that means. In the first book, Tris’ parents sacrifice themselves for her. In the second book, she tries to sacrifice herself for her friends because it’s a solution to their problem and she’s also suicidal, but she gets randomly saved, mostly because we can’t have the protagonist die when she’s suicidal, even if she does change her mind at the last minute but then does NOTHING AT ALL to save herself, whatever. And in the third book, she learns a lot about sacrifice and, because she understands it this time? is successful in sacrificing herself to save everyone else.
On the other hand, okay, Veronica Roth, if you’ve decided to kill off your main character, that’s your business, but do you really have to do it in a way that seems so… avoidable? I mean, Tris no sooner finishes surviving the scary death serum that kills everyone, proving that she is the awesomest awesome that ever awesomed, than she gets killed by some rando with a gun. (It’s like Movie Jean Grey all over again. Couldn’t she die fighting the big scary bad guys, instead of some bullshit about a dam and a lake and for some reason Nightcrawler, Iceman, AND Storm are all suddenly, inexplicably useless?) Was that supposed to make it more gut-wrenching? To be honest, I wasn’t very gut-wrenched, because (whispers) I didn’t care that much about the love story. And I also saw it coming a mile away and may have psychologically distanced myself. I dunno.
I left the series feeling confused. I suppose one theme is that you’re supposed to choose your own path, and your own values and lifestyle, and that no one can tell you what’s right for you. That’s great. But then, in book three, we find out that, actually, some people in Tris’ life are genetically engineered to live one kind of life, and that they can’t change. So… what the hell? Am I supposed to feel empowered here? Afraid of genetic engineering? Special because I still have the power to choose my life?
Mostly I just feel like maybe I’m too old for young adult fiction. Several young people in my life seem to get the point just fine.
Then I read the first book in the Pretty Little Liars series, because it was free on iTunes and I needed something to read on a trip, and I like the show kind of a lot because it’s creepy and glamorous and intriguing and I don’t have to defend myself to you so SHUT UP.
And THIS book, I totally get.
I’m not too old for young adult fiction. Pretty Little Liars brought me right back to what it feels like to be a teenager, from the perspective of four flawed protagonists. Emily is an athlete who is struggling to figure out the person she wants to be, which doesn’t always match up with the person she actually is. It’s heartbreaking to watch her panic, trying to consolidate the two. Hanna is a popular ex-loser who suffers from a little bit of bulimia, who panics about her appearance and feels like, if she eats too much, she will revert back into her younger, less-glamourous, overweight, un-popular self. Aria is your no-one-understands-me girl, who can’t stand the superficiality of the town or most of her peers, but is carrying a huge weight in the form of (seemingly) single-handedly holding her family together. (She is also in love with her teacher, which we all feel not-okay about.) And Spencer is the competitive overachiever who feels like her parents’ disapproval is the worst feeling in the world. God, do I remember that feeling.
All four of the girls possess functioning sexualities of varying degrees. Aria can’t keep it in her pants for her dumb teacher, Spencer totally makes out with her sister’s hot boyfriend, Emily has a crush on a new girlfriend but is haunted by major love PTSD, not to mention navigating her sexual preferences and what that could mean for her friends and family, and Hanna takes us through the acute pain of being painfully sexually rejected.
And of course on top of all of THAT SHIT, there’s the central plot: the girls are dealing with the sudden disappearance and prolonged absence of a mean-girl friend. That’s rough enough, but also, the girls are being stalked and anonymously harassed about all their secrets: the small ones, the new ones, and the old, scary, big ones. So while part of their teenage experience is completely universal, another part is definitely abnormal, and terrifying.
Maybe because PLL feels more like entertainment than a grand epic from which I am supposed to glean life lessons, I enjoyed it so much more than the Divergent series. Or maybe it was because there are four female leads, so the series doesn’t feel as much like a commentary on what girls are like, or what strong girls SHOULD be like. I didn’t have my guard up, trying to read into what I thought of the portrayal of women in pop culture. The PLL girls just are—they’re flawed, they can be really dumb, they suffer from insecurities that are totally relatable, and it’s okay, because they don’t have to save the world. (Though we definitely hate the whole Aria-and-her-teacher-thing.) Tris is also flawed, and she gets into some dumb shit with her boyfriend, but she was also given Harry-Potter-like special abilities that have nothing to do with her choices, and that makes her experience weird to relate to. Like Harry, we must admire her for choosing to do the right thing. Unlike Harry, I’m just not sure what I’m supposed to take away from her story.