After war with and invasion by China, America is struggling to survive as a new country with an eight level caste system. China invaded America after it was unable to repay the massive debt it owed. America was renamed The American State of China. When Russia attempted to invade the weakened America, North America banded together to fight both China and Russia. Eventually a new country was formed under Gregory Illea who lead the assault against Russia and a forged a peace treaty with China. This new country renamed Illea seems to have taken on some of the cultural aspects of China, with the removal of Western holidays and the moving of the New Year to January or February. Such is the post-war world in The Selection.
Generations after these events, America Singer lives with her mother and father and two younger siblings, May and Gerard, in Carolina Province. Society in Illea is divided into eight castes with America's family being Fives; three castes from the bottom. Those who are Fives work as musicians and artists. Being a Five means having barely enough food. The rich castes are Ones, Twos and Threes. In order to better themselves, the lower castes try to marry up.
America's life changes drastically when she enters a competition, called The Selection, to find a wife for the Crown Prince of Illea, Maxon Schreave. Young women between the ages of sixteen and twenty are invited to submit their applications. From the thousands of applicants, thirty-five women will be selected to live at the royal palace in Angeles and meet Prince Maxon. From these thirty-five women, one woman will be chosen by Prince Maxon.
America doesn't want to apply. She doesn't want to marry Prince Maxon because she has a secret and forbidden love; Aspen Leger, a Six, whom she plans to marry. However, to please her mother and when Aspen breaks up with her after telling her she needs to apply to the competition, America does so and predictably, is chosen as one of the thirty-five girls.
America enters the competition with the intention of not succeeding. She has a preconceived idea of what Prince Maxon must be like and she knows she won't be interested in him. However, despite telling Prince Maxon that she's not interested but that she'd like to stay on and help guide him in his choice of a wife, America soon finds herself deeply conflicted and falling in love.
Repeated rebel raids on the Palace lead Prince Maxon to cut short the selection process and choose only six women to remain. America is one of those six women. But her life is much more complicated than ever. If she thought running away to the palace would help her heal from Aspen's rejection she is mistaken because Aspen is now a guard in the palace. And Aspen wants her back.
The Selection is really a mashup of The Bachelor and Princess Diaries. It's an interesting idea which the author doesn't quite carry off.
The characters of Maxon and America are reasonably well drawn. Maxon is an appealing character who tries to maintain an attitude of respect towards the young women who are part of the Selection. He seems kind, attentive and intelligent. America is a girl who tries to help others and it is her magnanimous concern for those less fortunate than herself and the palace staff that help endear her to Maxon.
The book works as a romance read for young teens because it's interesting to watch how Maxon and America begin to develop a friendship and a blossoming love interest. Cass does a good job of developing this relationship. America has some difficulty admitting to herself that she is falling for the the prince, as she begins to know him better.
"I thought about the Maxon I knew now -- the man full of compliments, the man prepared to give me the winnings of a bet I lost, the man who forgave me when I hurt him both physically and emotionally -- and discovered that I didn't mind at all.The reappearance of Aspen as a guard seems contrived so as to set up a sort of conflict for America as to which man she may have to choose. As a result, this conflict feels somewhat unreasonable and unbelievable. This is mainly because America has started to fall in love with Maxon and she is beginning to see possibilities in a life with this man who is not at all what she thought he was. Indeed, the same could be said for Aspen, who although he claims to love America, puts her a great risk by visiting her in her bedroom. It seems that this conflict is what will be explored in greater depth in the next novel.
Yes, I still had feelings for Aspen. I couldn't undo that. But if I couldn't be with him, then what was holding me back from being with Maxon? Nothing more than my preconceived ideas of him, which were nothing close to who he was."
What The Selection lacks is depth in creating a believable post-war world. Since this is a future world, it seems odd that there is television and cars but no internet, computer devices or cell phones.And a country with the kind of civil rights history and historic Constitution seems unlikely to take on a caste system. I'm unsure whether the author believes that this would have been the result of being occupied by the Chinese (who do not have a caste system). In addition to this, the rebel threat is poorly developed and not really understandable to the reader.
The novel also lacks in the development of other minor characters, such as the other girls in the competition - most of whom just appear and disappear as quickly. Prince Maxon's parents are strangely absent, appearing as only one dimensional characters who sit in their chairs, nodding or laughing politely.
At times I found the writing in The Selection to be awkward - this was especially so in scenes with the television show and also the first attack on the palace. The ending is somewhat anti-climatic, and predictable.
Sadly The Selection hooks readers with its gorgeous cover, but the writing and storyline fail to serve up what the cover promises.
The Selection by Kiera Cass
New York: Harper Collins 2012