Sunday, May 6, 2012

Review: THE SELECTION by Kiera Cass

For thirty-five girls, the Selection is the chance of a lifetime. The opportunity to escape the life laid out for them since birth. To be swept up in a world of glittering gowns and priceless jewels. To live in a palace and compete for the heart of gorgeous Prince Maxon.
But for America Singer, being Selected is a nightmare. It means turning her back on her secret love with Aspen, who is a caste below her. Leaving her home to enter a fierce competition for a crown she doesn't want. Living in a palace that is constantly threatened by violent rebel attacks.
Then America meets Prince Maxon. Gradually, she starts to question all the plans she's made for herself—and realizes that the life she's always dreamed of may not compare to a future she never imagined.
I've heard several different people compare this book to Hunger Games + The Bachelor. Yeah, I get that. But to me, it was more Hunger Games + The Bachelor + the story of Esther + Miss Congeniality + Zero. Zero? What's Zero? (For an answer to that, jump to the very end of my review.)

In the country of Illea, citizens are categorized into numerical castes; unlike Zero, the lower the number the better. For instance, in America's world, Sixes are servants, Fives like her are poor, starving artists, and Ones are royal. Pretty interesting, huh?

I really enjoyed the hierarchy portion of the book. I find castes so interesting. To me, this hierarchy was the Hunger Games part of the equation. Ones = The Capitol. Granted, they're much nicer and don't require citizens to fight to the death, but they're oblivious to the problems of the lower castes, and there's some intimation that the rulers have been involved in some hinky, Big-Brother type dealings. Twos and Threes are like Districts One and Two - privileged snots. At the other end of the spectrum are people like America and her secret love Aspen, a bunch of people just barely scraping by. District Twelve, anyone?

The first part of The Selection spends time in America's pre-Selection life. We get to know her, to see how she lives, to meet her friends and family. This time was important, because it let me get to know America Singer and her family and Aspen and what she was fighting for. I mean, would the Hunger Games have been as powerful without meeting Gale and Prim? Nope.

Aspen - sweet, stupid, stubborn Aspen - was a joy to meet despite my dislike of his name. Actually, I wasn't too fond of America Singer's name either. It was just too... too dead-on, you know? She's an independent girl who can sing. Oh, and she has white skin, red hair, and loves to wear blue! Go figure. Anyways, I enjoyed seeing the heady, teen romance festering between the two. Very Romeo and Juliet, though thankfully they were doing smarter things than R&J, like actually discussing important things like kids and finances.

It's Aspen who pushes America to enter her name into the Selection. Prince Maxon needs a wife, and being a sweetheart of a boyfriend, Aspen believes that America deserves better than a Six. She deserves a prince. That and he's a pragmatic masochist.

Instead of dating like a normal boy, Maxon has his potential brides delivered to him in bulk. Thirty-five women are chosen based on looks, accomplishments, and connections (despite being supposedly pulled at random - yeah right!). Like any protagonist on The Bachelor or King Xerxes from the Esther story, Maxon spends time with all thirty-five girls and winnows them out one by one. The final choice for his bride is his alone. Even the king and queen don't get the final say.

I love the story of Esther, so I was excited to see how the Selection would play out, even if it meant leaving America's family and friends behind for a time.

Sadly, no glass tricks for America.
Though the conceit of the Selection itself might be straight out of The Bachelor, the characters were straight out of Miss Congeniality. America was Sandra Bullock - stubborn, opinionated, sometimes ill-mannered, not really in the contest for the right reasons, and clearly fated to stick around til the end. Around her swarmed a consortium of supporting characters - the sweet, somewhat naive girl in the form of Marlee, the bimbos, the drama queens, the quiet ones, the ill-fated, the cannon fodder. Still, I didn't need a gaggle of thirty-five nuances characters, so the stereotypes were okay with me, though I wish a few of them (Marlee!) had been given a bit more depth.

Then we met Maxon, and everything fell apart. I kid you not, I read Maxon's opening scene and felt a sensation spread through me akin to a balloon deflating. This was it? This was the guy we were supposed to root for? I found him stiff, flat, and startlingly naive for someone entrusted with an entire country. The plan he and America hatch... I could only shake my head that he would so willingly trust someone he had met only recently. She had done nothing to earn his trust, nothing to earn such power. I've seen The Bachelor, I know how utterly underhanded contestants can be, and those girls weren't competing for an entire freaking country!

Let me stress the unstated: this is my opinion only. I've read other reviews where the reader fell head-over-heels for Maxon. They loved him and wanted to have his babies. I was just not impressed, personally.

The same goes with the remainder of the story's execution. I felt a teeny bit fearful as Maxon explained the modus operandi of the South's reign of terror, but otherwise wasn't compelled to worry too much about anything at all. I expected some incredibly vicious scheming between the girls, but instead we had one main "villain" and one lesser sidekick "villain", while the other girls just took up space. There was no Hamaan, no deranged former beauty queen (can't remember the villain in Miss Congeniality's name). Even when America had a fair and aboveboard way to knock a scheming contestant out in order to save Maxon the trouble, she didn't. She should've, she could've, but she didn't, much to my frustration (grow a spine, girl!). I expected America to encounter some of the pitfalls involved with reality TV life, but instead was shocked at how rarely the cameras and paparazzi made an appearance. I mean, I realize Maxon's royalty and all, but the amount of privacy the contestants received is unheard of by today's standard, much less in the future.

And this is dystopian, right? So where's the oppression? The grit? Aw, poor baby brother can't be a soccer player because he's supposed to be an artist. You say you go to bed hungry sometimes. Meh.

More than anything, there was no Big Twist. There was no epic climax. Sure, there was one twist near the end of the novel, but I expected it, so instead of feeling like a Dun-Dun-DUNNNNNN!, it felt more like a whawmp-whawmp-whaaaaaaaaaaawmp (that's the sound of a sad trombone, for those who don't know).

You know that chart we're all shown when first writing a story for class? The one with exposition, climax, and resolution? That was missing in this story. Clearly, The Selection is meant to be the first in a series, so the series itself will have an overarching pattern, of which this first book is the exposition/rising action. However, even an opening book must have the peaking pattern shown to the left. For me, The Selection failed in this regard. By the end, I still felt like I was pushing my way to reach the climax. In the overall story, I was on Chapter One, maybe Chapter Two. And that's not good, folks, because it didn't leave me craving for more. At the most, I'm slightly peckish for more, that's all.

Again, just me. Many people have read and adored this book, and you very well may also. I will probably pick up the second book when it comes out just to see if it ever reaches the climax I crave, because I feel Cass is working up to something and is simply giving herself too much time to get there. I hope the payoff is worth it.

Points Added For: A really pretty cover, an interesting premise, a ginger protagonist, America's servants, semi-mature conversations regarding future planning between America and Aspen, The South.

Points Subtracted For: Lack of suspense, no legitimate climax, missed opportunities galore.

Good For Fans Of: Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, [Ummm, help me out here? I have a feeling that a contemporary choice a la The Bachelor for teens would be appropriate, but I can't think of one.]

Notes For Parents: Some language (d's and an s, as far as I remember), a couple makeout scenes, a veiled mention to a past sexual assault.

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