Fluff, feminism, and free speech: a late-to-the-party book review of ‘The Selection’

Fluff, feminism, and free speech: a late-to-the-party book review of 'The Selection'The Selection (The Selection #1), by Kiera Cass (hardcover, 336 pages). First published 2012. Genre: young adult, dystopian, chick lit, romance. Three out of five stars.

I have a lot of mixed feelings about this book. And when I say “a lot”, I mean “a truckload”. Warning: this will get long.

I feel like I need to start off by saying that before I picked this up at the library, I knew nothing about Kiera Cass, her books, or the intense online drama that surrounds this book. I picked it up blind, thinking it was a fluffy YA dystopian romance that I may or may not enjoy, but would certainly provide some fluffy entertainment for a Monday afternoon. It’s a quick, easy read with very light world-building and minimal character development, a somewhat sweet love story, and a fairly predictable plotline, but like a sugary treat, it’s hard to not gulp down all the same. I fluctuated in my rating throughout, first thinking it would be a two-star book, then thinking I really enjoyed it and it was probably a four-star book, then deciding it was not that great and downgrading to three stars. Again, this was all before hitting Goodreads and the Interwebs to learn more about the series or the author.

So, I’m going to divide this review into two parts: how I feel about the book (this is my original perception of the book and remains unchanged by what I’ve read around GR), and how I feel about continuing with the series overall, now that I’ve had time to mull over the book and have learned more about the series and the author. I say this because I do feel strongly that book bloggers have an obligation to be upfront about their opinions and how they may flavor a review they’re writing, and while I did mostly enjoy this book, my opinions definitely would flavor how I might feel about any future installments in the series. It’s kind of hard to view art and a creator separately and I think it’d be difficult to not see the rest of the series in a different light. Also, I feel like it’s important to be choosy about the authors we support and promote, especially those of us who are bloggers or budding writers ourselves and want to support our sisters, or who identify as feminists and want to support authors who write feminist stories.

So yeah, this will get looooooong. Read on for the full review and my thoughts on all the drama!

Let’s start with the book itself: there is no denying that this is dystopian lite, a fluffy read for teenage girls who are a little boy-crazy and have been weaned on reality TV. I know some people will crucify me for saying this, but hear me out: there are a lot of similarities to The Hunger Games and I think that might have been part of the appeal in the plotline. Both books are set in a dystopian future version of the United States, in a country that is largely divided along economic lines; both feature teen girls competing in a reality TV program (of sorts) organized by their government; both feature rebellions. Both heroines have younger sisters who idolize them and both know what it means to be hungry and not be able to support their families. Both are caught in love triangles with the boy back home and the boy they must reluctantly court on TV.

Now, put away your pitchforks, because I fully acknowledge that there are also a ton of differences between the two series. For starters, obviously, competing on a Bachelor-style TV show for the chance to win a little extra cash is obviously a far cry from volunteering to take your sister’s place in a gladiator competition. And America obviously has a much cushier life than Katniss ever did to begin with—she too is “here for the food”, but she’s not starving. The most obvious difference between the two books is that THG is an action-based trilogy and The Selection is a romance, so obviously you’re dealing with two very different types of heroines—the fighter and the girl whose main plotline involves love, or the art of pretending to love someone.
Katniss Everdeen will forever live in my heart as the girl who hooked me on YA (and as one of my favorite fiction heroines ever, YA or not), but I have yet to find another YA dystopian series that comes close to being so addicting and fun to read, despite many blurbs promising similarities. Divergent wasn’t too bad at first, though it obviously tanked by the end of the trilogy; but most others have fallen way, way short. At least The Selection wasn’t as painful to read as The Maze Runner. And at least I went into this expecting very little, so that probably helped me enjoy it for what it was, rather than expecting awesomeness and walking away bitter and disappointed.

(By the way, if you have a suggestion for a YA dystopian you think I might like, do let me know! I always need more suggestions for new books to read.)

So, on to the story. There were things I liked and things I didn’t. I have to admit that the trashy-fun part of this book is how silly it is, and sometimes that’s a good thing. Not every book can be super-serious and full of high stakes and drama, and I felt like this book was about on par with Pretty Little Liars or a giant bag of potato chips: godawful for your brain and full of empty calories, but so, so delicious. Sometimes I need a break from “heavy” books and The Selection came at the perfect time. The writing is very light and easy to read and the story rolls along in such a way that it’s easy to fly through this book. The drama never stops and it’s fun to sit back and watch, popcorn in hand.

America is not a terrible heroine. Some reviewers have called her a Mary Sue or a special snowflake and I suppose that’s fair—she’s pretty bland, but she isn’t unlikable. I would say I felt neutral toward her for most of the book; she isn’t someone I liked or disliked. She’s…nice. Not really a compliment, but like I said, I didn’t feel poorly toward her; I just think she’s kind of forgettable. The other girls in the Selection process are pretty bland supporting characters; I don’t even remember their names and I think that says something, considering I finished the book about twelve hours ago.

As for the plotline, I’m willing to admit the slight world-building is kind of silly and obviously it isn’t meant to hold up to someone used to reading epics like A Song of Ice and Fire. Even against other YA dystopias like The Hunger Games or Legend, it’s extremely “lite”. But again, I accepted it for what it was, so it didn’t bother me that much. I did want to see the elements of the rebels fleshed out a bit more but I’ve come to realize that many YA trilogies or series save the world-building for the second book, so perhaps that’s the case with this series as well. Again—not a dealbreaker for me.

Now, the romance. I’m not a fan of love triangles, and in this case, I’m kind of torn on the “love” in this book, period. For starters, let’s look at America’s relationship with her secret boyfriend, Aspen. The entire time I was reading this book I was annoyed with these two. Oh, you’re in love at sixteen? I’d buy “like” or “lust”, but love takes time and maturity. GTFO. Oh, you’re so upset because you’ve been together for two whole years? Honey, my husband and I are getting ready to celebrate an eight-year anniversary and we’re still learning new things about our relationship every damn day. These things take time and shared experiences, and you just can’t have that in a secret puppy love crush at sixteen. Sorry.
Now, as for Prince Maxon…I liked him a little better. He was set up as the very formal Prince Charming who slowly relaxed and fell in love with America, and I think their relationship was much easier to buy because a) there was no instalove or ludicrous mistaking of butterflies for eternal feelings and b) the progression of their relationship felt real to me. She’s feisty but pretty and catches his eye; he has a softer side that she comes to like. They alternate between liking each other and squabbling, in part because of the odd roles they’re in thanks to the Selection, and I think this seemed pretty natural for how this situation might play out in real life. I think I especially liked that Maxon isn’t a perfect prince but one who still pulls the royalty card now and then—guys with hearts of gold bug me in stories, because they’re just too damn perfect.

And while we’re comparing these two gents, I need to point out that Maxon was much more respectful to America than Aspen, who seems to think forceful kisses and always knowing better than her makes for a good relationship. Maxon respected her boundaries, even if he didn’t always like them. In a world of YA love interests who are just plain assholes, and in a book that otherwise didn’t have a lot to distinguish it, I have to give a small hand clap to this guy who waits for a clear “yes” before making his move, and accepts a “no” when he gets it.
I was glad that America decided in the end that she was going to play out the game for herself, instead of choosing one guy or the other, because this The Selection is already pretty heavy on the love triangle aspect and I needed a breather. It’s a small move, but it counts; I think more YA books need to remind girls that it’s okay to make decisions based on what you want and not necessarily with someone else in mind. And yes, that can include dating more than one person at once! I add this because some parts of the book (like the stipulation that all the girls be virgins) had me worried this book was going to veer into preachy territory and I feel like this was a small but important moment for America (and readers). Slut-shaming is a big trend in YA and I’m done with it. There’s nothing wrong with being unattached and not knowing exactly what your feelings are about different people so long as you’re upfront and honest about it, which is what America does, and this made me happy. Again, a small feminist moment in a book that I’m pretty sure was not meant to be a feminist tome.

Do I want to read the rest of the series to see what happens to America, Maxon, Aspen, and the rest of the cast? Yes and no. The part of me that enjoys fluffy reads on a rainy day is ready to devour the rest of the series, just for a guilty pleasure (preferably paired with a pint of chocolate ice cream). Another part of me is kind of okay walking away from this series without finishing it because honestly? It wasn’t that memorable, to the point that I need to know how it all ends. It won’t keep me up at night.

After I read this book and had dissected my thoughts and composed my review, I snooped around online to see how others felt about the series and was a little surprised to realize I’d missed all the drama four years ago when The Selection was first released and the author and her agent became embroiled in a reviewer-vs.-author online scandal. After learning about it, I have to admit that it kind of gives me pause for reading the rest of the series.

On the one hand, everyone makes mistakes, especially when they’re mad. And I am perfectly willing to admit that someone can make good art and still be a bad person (though maybe calling this “art” is a stretch, but you know what I mean). However, I also have zero tolerance for trolling or calling someone a “bitch” on Twitter because you have a difference of opinion, and as a book blogger, I especially have zero tolerance for someone who mistakes a respectfully negative review for a smear campaign. Not every reviewer will enjoy every book and that is okay. I also feel like it’s important to understand transparency in reviews, why reviewers DNF, and the difference between saying “this sucks” and enunciating why you personally didn’t enjoy it. More drama resulted from one honest review than was packed into a single chapter of this book, and as a blogger and reviewer that makes me sad.

Does it change how I feel about the book? No, and I stand by my review; it was silly and enjoyable and thoroughly forgettable, and I wouldn’t try to tell anyone else that they should or shouldn’t read this book. Read it if you want, or don’t. I don’t know if I’ll pick up the other books from the library to see how the story continues, since I originally planned to do so. I am curious to see if America grows as a character or remains in flat love triangle land.

But I do feel a little less inclined to support this author knowing that after she penned this story she decided to engage in such a petty war. To be fair she’s apologized and maybe she’s learned her lesson, but I have to admit it leaves a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. Unfortunately, the small feminist elements of this book feel less shiny in light of seeing two grown women stoop to plotting against a third just because they disagreed, no matter the topic. I mean come on already. And as a reviewer, I want to feel that I can enjoy books (or not) and review them honestly without the fear of being attacked. It’s true that being attacked by a keyboard warrior is always a threat online, but it shouldn’t be, especially in a place like Goodreads, for crying out loud.

Whew, that was a lot to say! Have you read The Selection? What did you think? Any similar books you think I’d enjoy more? Do you read books even if you don’t care for the author on a personal level, or do you shelve them?


  • Erin

    Haha, I have to say I will NEVER read this, but I was interested enough to go look up the controversy on wikipedia and goodreads. I don’t think that was a ‘mistake’ she could learn from, seems like a part of her human nature. I’ve seen a couple nasty author/review battles over the years. They are very sad.

    I am actually starting a YA series as soon as I have the spare cash to get them from NZ. Into the River and Into the World by Ted Dawe. They are also riddled with controversy but for the right reasons, some religious group tried to ban the. I <3 banned books! :)

    • Martha

      Ooh, let me know what you think of them! Here in the U.S. we celebrate “banned books week” every September, and the local libraries usually put up displays of featured banned books like Fahrenheit 451. I’m thinking I might do some specific posts that month on banned books, they are often very good ones that need to be read more!

  • mary

    Excellent post…It definitely gives pause for author and content considerations. I love your sense of humor, Martha! :)

  • Zoe @ Stories on Stage

    YES. My thoughts exactly! This was a decent light read, but I guess I just wanted something more from it. America wasn’t the worst heroine ever, but, then again, she wasn’t nearly as amazing as Katniss or many other YA dystopian characters. And the world-building and the love triangle were meh for me as well. Thanks for sharing and, as always, fabulous review! ♥

    • Martha

      Yeah, I think of some famous musicians or movie folks who’ve made great art even though they’re not someone you’d want to be friends with, so I think it’s the same with writers. Though I can see how it touches a nerve with a lot of bloggers since it’s such a personal, nasty attack.

  • Cait @ Paper Fury

    I honestly liked The Selection! I would read the rest…I just haven’t gotten around to it. I kind of vaguely know about the drama, but tbh, I really don’t like to let authors influence my reading habits. I really love Ender’s Game and that author is not a nice guy. But I like to separate the art from the creator, because the creator is human and is going to make mistakes. (It’s nice that Kiera Cass apologised and everything too. Not that I’m saying she should’ve trolled that reviewer. NOPE. That’s just wrong.)

    • Martha

      I flew through it! I definitely am Team Maxon, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed his character.

      I totally agree with you on OSC, he is not a nice person at all. But Ender’s Game was a great story with some really good lessons in it. I think if we never separated art from the artist we’d have a huge blacklist of amazing art, writing, music, etc. that we’d never enjoy. It’s funny how some things people can tolerate and others, they just can’t. At least Cass did apologize. I do think it’s really sad though that so many reviewers are getting attacked for giving their opinion, whatever happened to the old attitude of “any publicity is good publicity” ?

      • Erin

        Ohh…I can’t read Orson Scott Card. I can deal with not liking an author (I wouldn’t say I particularity like Hunter S Thompson for example), but OSC uses the money from his books to fund anti-gay movements, and I am not having my cash contributing to that.

        • Martha

          Good point there! I wouldn’t buy his books, but having read the story I do think he’s a brilliant writer–it’s a shame he doesn’t use his influence more wisely.

  • Lara Liz @ Another Teen Reader

    It might be a little bit shallow, but if I’m completely honest most of the reason I stuck with this book was the cover. Just. So. Pretty. *falls to the floor hyperventilating*

    I liked America sometimes, and then sometimes I was fed up with her, especially with her pining for Aspen. I often thought the setting (the palace, at least) was thought out enough, but then the rebels came and I often wasn’t so sure. I was barely even sure if I wanted Maxon to kiss her half the time (might it have been better – less trope-y – if they just stayed friends and Maxlee happened? IDK).

    Basically, I’m pretty confused about this book, and that’s before I knew about all this internet drama. But I think I’ll keep reading the rest of the series, because I like America in herself as a character, and I want to hear about more delicious strawberry tarts.

    • Martha

      I don’t think it’s shallow at all! I pick up and read a LOT of books solely because of the cover. Some turn out to be good, some not.

      I agree with you that America’s pining for Aspen was a bit much. He wasn’t even that awesome IMO!

      Also, I’m now hungry for a tart… :D

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