I’ve just set this book aside after having turned the last page, and I’m struggling to synthesize my feelings toward the story overall. On the one hand, I don’t feel that this book is nearly as strong as Roth’s debut, but on strength of writing alone, I feel uncomfortable giving the book anything less than a four. Since this is the same rating I gave to its predecessor, Divergent, I’m not altogether certain if this is an accurate reflection of Roth’s sophomore effort, but it’s what I’m sticking with nonetheless.
I picked up Divergent last year without knowing much about it beforehand and so was pleasantly surprised to find that it achieved the feat of providing a believable dystopian plot without succumbing to the gratuitous bleakness that often clings to the genre. Tris was a strong heroine whose merits shone despite her faults rather than without them. It was easy to root for her because her choices, her thought processes, her maturation earned my respect. Thus, it was with a heavy heart that I slogged through Insurgent only to find traces of the character that I had previously admired. I believe my main problem with Tris’s characterization in this installment isn’t that it marked such a stark departure from her previous persona; in the aftermath of the events she witnessed and unwillingly perpetrated, it is understandable that she would need a little time to assimilate her feelings. Whereas the Tris of Divergent was remarkable because she was able to push past her own fears and misgivings, I could forgive her a temporary lapse into self-indulgence or incompetence after the actions she is forced to take. Yet, the reason I had such difficulty reconciling the Tris of the second installment with that of the first was due in large part to the fact that Tris didn’t begin to exhibit any signs of weakness until Insurgent began. Had Roth hinted a bit at Tris’s vulnerability in this regard as Divergent wound down, it would have seemed believable, yet I can’t help but think that Tris’s character progression was decided after Roth had already finished writing the first book.
Compounding my frustration with Tris’s personality turn for the worse is the fact that she succumbs to that hated device of failure to communicate. Unfortunately for readers, she is not alone in this error, as Roth insists upon altering Four’s personality as well so that he and Tris spend the majority of the story running deceptive, distrustful circles around each other. For two people who supposedly epitomize bravery, they are infuriatingly incapable of taking the scary step toward trust. Roth succeeds in maintaining my interest in her secondary cast of characters, yet by novel’s end I found myself struggling to identify which side everyone stood for. The book features so many double-crosses and ulterior motives that it becomes tedious at times and, worst of all, feels manufactured in a way that contrasts with Divergent’s refreshing simplicity.
Overall, while Insurgent held my interest throughout and certainly never lacked for action, I felt that it was something of a mess structurally. Obviously, Roth had to find a way to further the story without the initiation as a backdrop, and visiting the different factions that weren’t highlighted in Divergent was a clever way of doing so. Yet, the continual back and forth among locations came across as somewhat sloppy. While I always understood what was going on, I nevertheless found that the narrative thread was lost so that, despite understanding the developments in each individual scene, I never had a sense of where the overarching story was going. This might be fitting, and even desirable, under different circumstances, but where as here it seemed an unintentional consequence of poorly planned plot structure, I think it was a detriment.
Still, despite my complaints, I can’t say that Roth’s second novel suffered from sophomore book syndrome. Her story is still engaging, her characters sympathetic despite their flaws, and, thankfully, her plot devoid of any hint of a love triangle heading into the final installment. I’ll definitely be around to see how Tris and Four’s story concludes next year.