In a Nutshell
Do you like the Beatles? Then you can't be friends with someone who likes The Rolling Stones. Do you have an iPhone? Then you can't be friends with someone who has an Android phone. Mac or PC? Republican or Democrat? DC Comics or Marvel Comics? Come on—you can only choose one.
Okay, that's not true: you can enjoy both the Beatles and the Stones; you can be a Republican and still be friends with a Democrat (or even a third-party voter); and you should like both DC and Marvel Comics. But imagine a world where you could only choose one and that one choice would dictate the rest of your life. Your friends, your job, your hairstyle—all of those would be set after you made that one choice.
If you have trouble imagining that world, no biggie: Veronica Roth has imagined it for us in her 2011 book, Divergent. In post-apocalyptic Chicago, everyone belongs to one faction, which you choose when you turn 16. Each of the five factions is dedicated to one ideal, which basically decides everything about its members' lives.
So when Beatrice Prior turns 16 she has to choose to join either self-denying Abnegation, brave Dauntless, knowledgeable Erudite, truthful Candor, or friendly Amity. While Beatrice grew up in an Abnegation family, she chooses to join Dauntless. But joining Dauntless is a lot harder than it seems. "Tris" not only has to fight the other applicants—she's gotta fight her own fears. And when she finally gets into Dauntless, she learns that there's an Erudite conspiracy to take over the city from the Abnegation government.
That may sound complex, but it's pretty easy to get into once you learn a few weird words. At its heart, Divergent is an exciting adventure story in a thought-provoking world. Which is maybe why it's reached bestseller status and won the 2011 Goodreads Reader's Choice Award. Plus there's a movie in the works, with Kate Winslet attached. How could you go wrong?
Divergent is Veronica Roth's first book, which may make you feel better or worse about your own accomplishments when you learn that it was published when she was only 22-years-old. It's the first book in a series, with Insurgent (2012) and Allegiant (2013) as numbers 2 and 3. So if you're hooked on Divergent, Roth will be keeping you busy with awesome books for years to come.
Why Should I Care?
Before you dismiss this book as simply another The Hunger Games ("look, teens are fighting in both") or as a retread of Harry Potter ("look, the factions are just like the different houses in Hogwarts"), let's admit the truth: yes, there are similarities. But Shakespeare stole all of his plots from history books and other plays, and he was still pretty good at that writing thing. So let's not write off Divergent as yet another teen dystopia just yet. It's got more to give.
For one thing, everything Tris is going through, you're probably facing, too. It's just her version may be a little more extreme. For example, maybe you have to decide whom to sit with in the cafeteria and whom to hang out with—which is pretty much what Tris goes through when she has to decide what faction to join, except that choice is for life, whereas where you only need to make it through a lunch period. Or maybe you're dealing with the complex feelings of being a friend but being in competition with someone (hello, SATs). Tris knows what that's like, too, since she has to compete with her friends Christina and Will to get into Dauntless. So in a way, this book may look like an extreme version of what you're going through already if you're now around 16. (Though, hopefully, your school doesn't require people to jump off trains.)
But Divergent isn't just about fitting in and making friends at school or in a faction. When Tris has to choose which faction she wants to belong to, she's making a choice about what kind of person she wants to be. Does she want to be truthful or brave or smart or generous or nice? That's kind of an awful question—who says you can't be all of those things?—but it's the kind of question that people ask themselves every day. Long after you graduate from school, you'll be presented with a situation where you'll have to ask yourself: should I be nice or truthful? ("Yes, that dress looks good on you" or "You look as big as a house, so try again.") Brave or smart? Generous or selfish?
It only looks like Tris answers this question once, but in fact, she keeps answering this question all the time with what she does. This is why you'll see adults commuting to big fancy office jobs reading this book on the train. (But, again, hopefully not jumping off that train.) This book asks the big question of the reader: what sort of person do you want to be? Maybe you start answering that question when you're a young adult reading a young adult book, but you'll keep answering it throughout your life.