The Story: America Singer is one of 35 young ladies (between the ages of 17 and 20) who are chosen to be the potential bride for Prince Maxon, son of the royal family in the nation of Illea. Thus, America leaves behind her family; her designated caste; and her former boyfriend, Aspen, to compete for the prince’s heart. While her family sees only the rewards they will reap if America is chosen, America isn’t so keen on the endeavor and would much rather stay in her former way of life, which is what she’s always known. But once she’s thrust into the royal spotlight, America begins to wonder if she just might be able to win the prince’s heart after all.
My Take: I want to preface this review by stating that I did not read The Selection in its proper entirety. Try as I might, I struggled to even reach the halfway point (I got to chapter ten out of a total of twenty-five chapters but I skimmed through the novel’s latter half). Normally, I always finish a book, even if I have to mentally force myself. But with The Selection, I just couldn’t do it though I read enough that I’m confidant I can produce a full review. The fact I couldn’t finish this novel is saying something and not something good, as you might imagine. It isn’t that The Selection is awful. I’ve read worse. It also isn’t offensive, at least not based on what I read. It was just very frustrating on several levels.
My first major issue is with the worldbuilding, which left quite a bit to be desired, especially since this is the first book in a trilogy. If Illea is a fictional county in a “real” world (since China gets a mention here), that’s fine; but it would have been helpful to have some kind of background as to what type of kingdom it is. Even after the first half of the novel, I still had no inkling of what Illea was supposed to be since it doesn’t seem to be entirely invented yet obviously no such country exists. Because there are descriptive trappings that make it appear like it’s some kind of alternative United States, that’s how I interpreted it. But if that’s the case, how did the United States become Illea and turn into a monarchy? These are massive political and social changes that have to be addressed early on. Again, perhaps they are discussed later in The Selection or even the rest of the trilogy. But since this is important backstory, it needed to be mentioned at least within the first half of the novel.
Similarly, where did the caste system originate and how does it come into play? In Illea, people are ranked on a numeric scale with Ones being the aristocracy and all other descending numbers being less desirable the further down they go. America, for example, is a Five but what does that really mean for her? We’re not really told, at least not satisfyingly enough for me. Likewise, the caste system isn’t static because a royal official decides to upgrade America’s caste number. Overall, the system doesn’t seem to hold much weight and there doesn’t appear to be any stringent rules regarding how castes are chosen, passed on, or their influence upon the nation at large. To be fair, it seemed like a good idea but it isn’t executed clearly.
My second issue is with the characters. Granted, YA literature seems to be the last place to find compelling characters though there are exceptions. Sadly, The Selection is not one of these. America, who serves as the chief narrator, isn’t detestable or stupid but she isn’t particularly interesting. Instead, she seems like a typical teen who’s simultaneously bored with her existence yet inwardly craves something more. The other characters borrow from tried-and-true tropes: the smothering mom, the rebel hottie, the handsome prince, the mean chick, the nice girl, etc. They’re characters who have been done before and possess nothing satirical nor new about them to make them intriguing.
My last issue with The Selection was the painfully obvious connections to The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, reality “romance” shows like “The Bachelor” (which I’ve never watched), Divergent by Veronica Roth (especially regarding the caste system), and even the Biblical book of Esther. Actually, as close as The Selection comes to being a tamer, far more girly Hunger Games, the biggest comparisons I saw were actually to Esther. In Esther, the Persian king’s advisers select virgins from across the kingdom so the king can choose a new bride/queen among them. Esther, who is Jewish, is the underdog but she’s kind, brave, wise, and compassionate, hence winning the favor of everyone around her by being herself. In time, she weds the king and ends up saving the lives of her people by standing up against a murderous plot. I’m not saying The Selection is a weak sci-fi attempt to retell the book of Esther, but its parallels are too obvious to ignore and, hence, make it seem like it tries too hard to reinvent the wheel, so to speak.
From a writing standpoint, The Selection is dry and flavorless. The pace is quick but it’s very bare bones as if it’s in a hurry to get to the end. It probably doesn’t help that there are many sources from which The Selection’s premise draws, which isn’t a negative by default but there is a difference between being inspired and letting inspiration drive a story to the point that reading it makes you suffer deja vu (as in you’ve read this somewhere before), which was precisely why I couldn’t finish the novel.
[My assessment of content in The Selection is based solely on the first half of the novel:]
Language – Seemingly minimal with a few PG-level profanities.
Violence – None, based on what I read. Evidently, in the novel’s second and third acts, rebel forces try to attack the royal palace. But since I skimmed those parts, I can’t say how violent or intense those portions are.
Sexual Material – Nothing outright other than cuddling and kissing. One regal official asks America to verify, in writing, that she’s a virgin since only virgins are eligible to become a part of the Selection. There is also talk of girls trying to seduce the prince and being more “experienced” than America but no further details are discussed. Again, this is based on the first ten chapters, so there may be content in this category later on that I missed.
Overall, The Selection is verbal candy floss with even less staying power. Its world-building possesses gaps and unaddressed issues, the characters are tropes, its inspirations are glaringly obvious, and its writing lacks rhythm or color. Again, that doesn’t mean The Selection is horrible – it just isn’t very engaging, especially to anyone under 13 or over 18 years old. Thus, The Selection is for a specific audience of teen girls who enjoy fluff stories. There’s nothing wrong with fluff stories once in a while but they’re just not my cup of tea. Hence why I passed on The Selection.