Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Reading Experiment Update: Allegiant and Excluded

On the 2014 Reading Experiment front in which I'm only reading books written by women writers this year, I have finished Julia Serano's Excluded and Veronica Roth's Allegiant.

As Serano is a feminist who holds a PhD in biochemistry and biophysics and one who has thought a lot about gender and identity, I always appreciate her perpspective and ideas. To me, one of the more useful tools I gain from reading her accessible-to-laypeople writing are the insights that we, as feminists, can concede that biology does impact our bodies while still maintaining that we can and should scrutinize and critique gender-based stereotypes (ie - traits thought of as "essential" to a gender but that, in fact, are not).

I also appreciate her insider critique of feminism as it's much more informed and nuanced than most of what passes for "critique" from those who aren't feminists and those who really know nothing about what feminists think. For me personally, it's much easier for me to accept criticism of a movement I identify with when I know that the person rendering the critique shares many of my basic assumptions about gender and that they, too, have thought about gender beyond simple "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" soundbites.

Anyway, one of my few critiques of the book itself is that it began to feel a bit repetitive to me, which may be due to it being a collection of essays.  That's not really a substantive criticism that invalidates her points, I just have limited reading-for-pleasure time and I found myself thinking, "Okay double standards are bad, I get it already!"

Moving on to Roth's book, Allegiant is Book 3 of her Divergent young-adult series. For a very short plot synopsis, the Divergent series is about a somewhat-dystopian US where people live in different factions where the members each emphasize and embody one of five different traits: candor, dauntless, abnegation, amity, and erudite.

Throughout the series, although perhaps simple, I found the faction concept to be incredibly thought-provoking. Within the factions, the various traits were exaggerated, thereby provoking the question of the extent to which these traits can co-exist not only within individuals but within a functioning society as well.  For instance, how might a faction that values telling the truth at all costs conflict with a faction that values maintaining peace and goodwill at all cost?  Are there ways to balance the goods of truth-telling and peace-keeping?

Allegiant is, I believe, the final book and I read it wanting to know how Roth would tie it all up. I find the series protagonist, Tris (a teenage girl) to be compelling, conflicted, and brave. The plot of Allegiant delves into other weighty issues like so-called genetic purity, eliminationism, and cleansing - as well as what identity itself even means.  On those fronts, I found the book interesting.

However, I also found myself feeling annoyed.  For one, while the previous two books were told in the first person from Tris' perspective, the third book was told in the first person from Tris' perspective and, in alternating chapters, from the first person in Tobias' perspective.

Tobias is an okay character, I guess (although from the Divergent movie preview I saw, I fear that the producers are turning him into the main protagonist and turning Tris into his adoring little follower, which is not the case in the books).  However, until the very end, I didn't really get why Roth made the decision to expand the viewpoint to include Tobias ( I won't give away spoilers).  To me, their voices weren't distinct enough internally so if I stopped reading the book mid-chapter and picked up again later, it often took me at least a few pages to even know who's head I was in.  I guess I don't like books where multiple characters are presented in the first person - or, it has to be done really well.

Secondly, Tobias is Tris' main love interest during the books. So, that's fine too. And maybe I'm showing how maybe a 30-something-year-old isn't exactly the target audience for this book, but. Imagine being around a teen couple that's, like, super new at being together and in love. Imagine every one of their meetings being A Really Big Romantic Deal that involved kissing, teasing, and petting. Imagine being in the room with this couple and hearing their kissy-mouth-smacky noises while they acted like you weren't even there.

Tobias and Tris did this to their friends constantly and I was super annoyed not only on my behalf but on behalf of the fictional friends who had to endure it. Nobody likes to hear other people's smacky noises.

Anyway, next up in my queue is Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey and Paris Was a Woman by Andrea Weiss.

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