Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Selection by Kiera Cass

People have been asking me to review THE SELECTION for years. Years. But whenever a book gets this popular I tend to back off, because at that point, most of what needs to be said has been said - and by reviewers who are far more creative and hilarious than me. Case in point, I only just this year reviewed BEAUTIFUL DISASTER, and that ship sailed a looong time ago. But then my library got a copy of THE SELECTION, and I thought, "Why not? Let's give it a whirl." My friends' opinions are split pretty evenly on this book, with half shipping it and even participating in role-playing games about it, and the other half expressing a strong desire to use it for kindling in the fireplace.

So, what did I think? I have so much to say, it's hard to figure out where to start. I didn't like the book. Obviously. It didn't make me sizzle and pop with rage, although after reading it, I'm a little puzzled as to why it's so popular. Nearly every aspect of the book held some sort of flaw for me, from its stilted dialogue all the way up to its shelving as a dystopia.

Let's start with the genre itself. I'm a fan of dystopian fiction. When done properly, it can be an excellent way to highlight the flaws in a society by taking a reductio ad absurdum "what if?" scenario to show how our many excesses and our hidden or subtle cruelties can destroy us. THE SELECTION, on the other hand, is basically The Bachelor set in a very tame, very unfrightening "Hunger Games lite" universe. America, the heroine, lives in a bizarre version of the United States that has been invaded by both China and Russia, and is now called Illea after the general who saved the country and later became king...because reasons. For some reason, the United States has also become striated by a rigid caste system that starts with one (royalty) and ends in eight (homelessness). I was trying to figure out the professions that went with this system, because one of the girls who works on the farm is a four, manual laborers (like movers) are six, and America's family, a bunch of performers and musicians, are fives. This seemed weird to me for several reasons, but the one I'm going to get into now is that performing arts are an activity of leisure generally associated with those who are middle to upper class. Why? Music lessons cost a lot of money. Instruments are expensive. Practicing costs time - time that would be spent doing other things, like having a part-time job. Who are their family's clients? What do those numbers mean? If this is a criticism of society, it would be nice if what it is criticizing had been laid out better, and if those being oppressed by the system actually seemed to feel some sort of real pressure or fear.

Poverty itself is a bit mysterious here, too. America is supposed to be fairly poor. At one point, she tells the prince that she has had to choose between food and electricity. But she doesn't seem to be hungry or desperate. In fact, she saves most of her meals for her poor six boyfriend, Aspen, and manages to do this without fainting. I might be more convinced by her plight if she got her clothing from the garbage of twos and threes, or if she often walked around feeling dizzy and sick. But no, she seems quite comfortable - enough to be flippant about her position. If she's that poor, why would she have fashionable dresses (albeit from an outmoded season) that don't have any rips or tears? Why can she afford makeup? Makeup is freaking expensive, and yet another thing that is often associated with the upper classes. This is the most gilded example of "poverty" that I have ever read about!

Gender roles in this book are another aspect of this book that felt very strange. Obviously, if you have thirty-five girls fighting over a boy there's going to be girl-on-girl hate. I didn't sign up for this book thinking I was going to get a feminist treatise on why you don't need a man in your life to be validated as a person. But at the same time, the sheer number of "boys are this way" and "girls are this way" stereotypes was a little surprising. And while the thought did occur to me that this could be part of the "critique" of this dystopian society, it really didn't feel that way to me. America, our heroine, dishes out some of these gender role stereotypes while instructing Maxon on how to treat women. One of the first things she tells him is that women don't want you to fix their problems when they cry, they just want to be consoled. And in the beginning of the book, Aspen breaks up with America because he's angry that she's been saving money for him, because - and he actually says this - men are supposed to be the providers, not women. America totally buys it! She feels bad. At one point, while contemplating her future with Aspen, she actually says: "If only I could sit and patch [up his shirt and jeans] for him. That was my great ambition."

I will give the author props for attempting to write a decent male lead. This was written when junior alphas were popular, and I think Cass really tried to write a decent beta hero with Prince Maxon. Again, props for the effort...but it wasn't a successful one. Maxon mostly just comes across as wishy-washy and bland. Originally, I gave THE PRINCE - the part where he meets America, except written in his POV - a two-star rating, but I deducted it, because apart from just being a POV-swapped rehashing of the events in this book, Maxon's head is a terribly dull place to be. When he's not dull, he's affected and smarmy. In THE PRINCE, his fear is that he'll fall in love with all the girls and won't be able to choose just one. He calls them all "my dear," and says this quote at one point: "You are all dear to me. It is simply a matter of discovering who shall be the dearest."

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the dearest of them all?

In my review of the "prequel" to this book, THE PRINCE, I expressed a desire for some trashy reality TV style entertainment in THE SELECTION. I didn't pick this up expecting Nicholas Nickleby, but I did expect to be entertained. I'm not above watching reality TV or soap operas, and I was hoping at the very least that the girl-on-girl fights would be colorful or interesting, with catty but funny insults, hair pulling, and even some well-executed social coups a la Sae from Peach Girl (my favorite two-faced witch-with-a-B, hands-down). But no, one of the rules of THE SELECTION is that girls are expressly forbidden from sabotaging or striking one another, or they will be disqualified. Somebody does actually get slapped in this book, but the slapper gets disqualified and nothing comes of it. Someone's dress gets torn, too, but only a sleeve - and nothing comes of it. The sexually confident girls are universally loathed by America and everyone else, and some catty remarks are made, but it's all very G-rated, and, again, nothing comes of it.

This is what passes for drama in this book:

"That was it. I slapped him. "You idiot!" I whisper-yelled at him. "I hate him! I loved you! I wanted you; all I ever wanted was you!"

Whisper-yelling.

Ironically, the YA books I read before and after this one were very similar concepts that did it better. The one before was Amy Ewing's THE JEWEL - which actually suffered many of the same problems: odd gender roles, bad world-building, girls competing for a "honorable" role that is actually mired in sexism (in one, decorative wife, in the other, surrogate to rich women). The difference is that THE JEWEL was not afraid to be dark. It was no 1984, but at least I got the sense that there was real oppression in this world and dire consequences for those who flaunted it. The book I read after this one was THE FALSE PRINCE by Jennifer Nielsen, which is similar in the sense that it has a bunch of commoners competing to fulfill a "royal" role. The difference is that a) it's all boys and b) failure means death, so the competitors have more than enough motivation to do well. I think that's what I expected going into THE SELECTION: I expected more hunger, more desperation, with a heroine who had to choose between love and death in a world of darkness. Instead, I got someone who thinks poverty is only getting to wear makeup when you go out and drama is having the sleeve of your dress half-heartedly ripped off when you refuse to swap outfits.

My intention was to read through the series and see if it picked up like THE JEWEL did, but it looks like my library has copies of every book in this series except book TWO. I'm not about to skip a book, because I might miss something important (wink), so it looks like I dodged a literary bullet. I'm in no particular hurry to dive back into this world and find out what happens to Maxon and Aspen and America, either. Who will she choose? What will she wear? Who will be queen? (Listed in descending order of importance, obviously.) Look, I get the fascination with royalty. Disney princesses, Kate Middleton, The Princess Diaries. It's a position of incredible power that seems feminine but isn't intimidating. Ask most little girls what they want to be when they grow up, and I'm sure a fair amount of them will say "princess." Capitalizing on that, and using it for social commentary? Brilliant. There was a great idea buried somewhere in here, that could have been used to highlight gender stereotypes, misogyny, double-standards, social inequality, and reality TV. There were dozens of possibilites! But making the U.S. a constitutional monarchy of a caste system that feels like a learn-to-count episode of Sesame Street while everyone twirls around in ball gowns probably wasn't the best way to go about it. But that's just my opinion.

1 out of 5 stars

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