**This posts contains spoilers for the book The Selection by Kiera Cass**
Last March I started reading an advanced copy of The Selection by Kiera Cass. At the time, I had just read The Hunger Games and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins. I needed a break before reading Mockingjay and decided to give The Selection a shot. The cover is what caught my eye and the synopses sounded intriguing. In a post-American world, 35 girls compete to win the prince’s hand in marriage. As many reviewers later put it, it was The Hunger Games meets The Bachelor. Granted, just coming off reading The Hunger Games, I found that the books had several similarities, but nothing that could be considered plagiarism. I actually didn’t get very far into reading the book. The tone of it irked me, though I couldn’t really put my finger on why exactly. So I put the book down with no intention of picking it back up again.
Now, a year later I’ve started listening to audio books to help check books off my “to read” list a little quicker. When browsing online for downloadable audio books from my library, I came across The Selection. Sure, I remembered my dislike of the little bit that I read, but I was also curious. What happened after I’d stopped reading? My curiosity was too much and I decided to go ahead and listen to it.
In the futuristic world of The Selection, there’s a caste system in 35 different provinces and moving between castes is extremely difficult but not impossible. The royal family is the ones, twos and threes are still fairly well off, fives are artists, and eights are essentially the homeless for they are the bottom rung. There are strict rules and horrible consequences (pregnancy out-of-wedlock is grounds for jail and there are public beatings for stealing). The narrator of the story is America Singer, a five whose family does okay for themselves but could always use just a little more. Upon the urging of her mother and her secret boyfriend Aspen (a six), America enters the Selection. Not surprisingly – she is the narrator, after all – she is chosen as one of the lucky girls to be whisked off to the palace and try to win over Prince Maxon’s heart. Aspen takes himself out of the picture, but America cannot stop loving him just because he breaks up with her.
America quickly alliances herself with Maxon, promising friendship and help in making his decision for future wife. In exchange, he will keep America in the contest for as long as possible; each of the girls’ families are compensated monetarily each week she remains at the palace. Being a five, America’s family can use the extra money. Through the days, Maxon and America come to know each other and start confiding in each other. Maxon dismisses girls as he learns that some are not his type, but he keeps his promise and America stays. There is, of course, one fiercely competitive girl, Celeste, who is awful to the girls when the cameras aren’t around and sickeningly sweet when the Prince is around. There are also rebel forces (two different ones, in fact), who attack the palace, which throws a political twist and physical threat into the plot.
The reviews on Good Reads are mixed. Those who didn’t like it hated it and those who like it loved it. I’m one of the few that is split down the middle. I both loved and hated it. The things that I didn’t like were the ambiguous nature of the monarchy. How did the United States go from a democracy to monarchy? Early on in the book, America* alludes to a fourth world war but it isn’t until much, much later in the book that more history facts come into light. While I was glad to eventually have an explanation, it wasn’t a clear one. Too early on in the book, the reader is asked to take faith that the United States has suddenly become a monarchy and not ask why. Writers should avoid this tactic, unless the writer is an established one that the reader can trust has a reason for delaying important information. To suspend the believability for so long was a bad choice on Cass’ part. I think that she should have given more history at the beginning, through the homeschooling that is frequently mentioned but never seen, or action, like America reading the slightly singed history book, then more people would have been drawn in.
Let’s go back to that history book for a minute. It was quite an intriguing bit, once Cass got around to writing that scene. It was late in the novel, when America has been at the palace for at least a week and she describes a memory of finding the book in her parents’ bedroom. Not only are there burn marks on the book, but pages have been ripped from it. Through America’s thoughts, the reader learns that this is the only history book she’s ever seen, and her father says not to tell anyone about it. Curiouser and curiouser. Yet I feel Cass did two things wrong with this scene. First, she didn’t put it in the beginning of the book. If I were to read a book that has the United States as a monarchy and then immediately learn that history books are obsolete, possibly even forbidden, then I would sense a deeper theme coursing through the pages rather than a simplistic plot of down-on-her-luck girl becoming a princess. Many reviewers on Good Reads didn’t finish reading the book or skimmed much of it after reading the first part, much like I did my first time around. They probably didn’t even know that something’s up with how people learn and remember history. What if they had read this scene at the beginning of the book? Would they have stuck it out longer? I think so, or at least most of them would have. Second, Cass didn’t go anywhere with the scene. It was just there, thrown in with no follow-up. What were the things that America read? Did she ever ask her dad why they had the book if she wasn’t allowed to say anything about it? Why was it missing pages and singed? Maybe Cass is setting a foundation for the second book with this scene, but even if she is, the scene is out of place and I think loses a lot of its intrigue by not being mentioned again.
When the history lesson finally shows up, the book is two-thirds done**. This is way too late in the novel and I’m still a bit hazy on the details of it all, how the democracy crumbled and a monarchy was put in place. Having listened to the book, it’s hard for me to say whether or not the author skimmed over the details or I wasn’t paying good enough attention. It’s harder to go back through an audio book and pinpoint certain sections to listen to again.
Another hazy area was the reason for the rebellions. Cass establishes that there are two main rebel groups, but, again, this information comes later in the book and seems to be only something that concerns the royal family and not any of the provinces. It’s also not quite clear why the people are rebelling. Again, this could be because I didn’t pay close enough attention; I cannot say for sure. The rebels are mentioned only a handful of times, two of which were when they attacked the palace. But nothing ever resulted from the attacks. They were just another story element floating by itsself. Again, this could be foundation for the second book, but as an unknown author, Cass is asking her readers to have a lot of faith and patience that it will all come together eventually.
There were many other things that I can nitpick on that I wish Cass had done, but I want to move on to the good parts. First, the cover. Whoever designed that cover should get an award. I drew me in and many other reviewers as well. I want a dress like that! The basic plot and underlining political connotations (not much but some) were intriguing. Any writer could tell you it’s hard to come up with an original story, but Cass was definitely successful in that department (the execution was another matter). The best part of the book, I felt, was America’s emotions. Anger that the higher castes had no idea what life was like for the lower ones. Love and hurt from Aspen’s break-up. Jealousy of Maxon kissing other girls. And so on. I’d once read a dystopian novel where the main character/narrator quickly forgot about the love of her life when she met another dude just a short while later. America does start to develop feelings for Maxon, but she’s still hurt from Aspen and still loves him. That’s true to life. One doesn’t simply forget about a love – especially a first love – as soon as the break-up happens. The heart keeps on loving. The hurt keeps on hurting. Cass pinpointed those emotions perfectly.
So, I’m torn. The book was entertaining, but I wanted more of it, more explanations, more detail. The second book, The Elite, is set to come out at the end of April. Of course, I have to know what happens. Does Cass explain the lack of history books? Does America’s feelings for Maxon grow deeper? Why are the rebels attacking? I just have to know!
(Also, what a great cover! I want that dress, too!)
*To avoid confusion, I’ll use America to mean the narrator and the United States to mean the country.
**This is an estimation; I don’t actually know because I listened to the novel and didn’t have a page count.