The novel primarily focuses on America's struggle to choose between her first love Aspen whom she believed no longer loved her, and Prince Maxon who offers her status, wealth and possibly a chance to change things for the better.
America seems to be the favourite of Prince Maxon who demonstrates his preference for her by sharing a palace secret and spending a significant amount of time with her. But America is beset by jealously over his attentions to the other five girls whom she sees as less than capable and by conflict over her unresolved feelings towards Aspen.
Prince Maxon repeatedly tells America that if she says yes to him - if she tells him that she loves him, the competition will be over. But America cannot commit to him, because she still loves Aspen who is now a guard outside her room in the palace and because she doesn't know if she wants the responsibility being Princess will bring.
"It used to feel like the Selection was one choice: Maxon or Aspen. And as if that was some decision my heart could make simply, it grew into so many more things. Was I a Five or a Three? When this was over, would I be a Two or a One? Would I live my days as an officer's wife or a king's? Would I slide quietly into the background in which I'd always been so comfortable or force myself into the spotlight I'd always feared? Could I happily do either? Could I not hate whoever Maxon ended up with if I chose Aspen? Could I not hate whoever Aspen chose if I stayed with Maxon?"However, when she witnesses a terrible act of cruelty, condoned by Prince Maxon, America begins to have her doubts. Does she know the real Maxon? Angry at Prince Maxon, America questions whether she truly wants the job of princess. She questions whether she has what it takes to be a part of the royal family.
With only five young women left, they are given a task which will determine the next girl to leave the Elite. This time each of the girls must design a program that will be of benefit to the country and propose how it might be undertaken on the Capital Report. However, America finds herself unable to come up with anything. Struggling to deal with the recent events and with the fact that one of the girls has begun to seriously attract Prince Maxon's affection, America finds her hold on the Prince slipping. Maxon challenges America to decide whether or not she is serious about wanting the responsibility of becoming the princess and about wanting him. Because if she doesn't want this he does not want to send home a girl who truly wants to be a part of the Selection.
With the rebels from both the North and the South increasing their attacks on the royal compound, America must make a choice. She has two very different men seeking her heart. Can she find what it is she truly wants for herself and her country?
Although I found the beginning of the novel slow, I was gradually drawn into the story by the increasing tension between Prince Maxon and America, as well as the appearance of a new love interest for Prince Maxon - someone who gradually becomes a serious threat to America's hold on the Prince. This development leads the reader to question whether America will be sent home. The conflict that Maxon and America experience is also mirrored in the increasing conflict between the royal family and the rebels. During the course of this novel there are three rebel attacks, each one more serious in nature with the royal family appearing less able to repel them. It also comes to light that the rebels want the Selection stopped.
Cass doesn't spend much time in this novel filling her readers in on the post-apocalyptic world of The Elite. We learn that the queen was from a lower caste in the South and that her marriage to the king appeased the rebels for a time. But many families in the South have seen their status downgraded to a lower caste if they were suspected of helping the rebels.This has only furthered the tension between the South and the royal family. We also learn that eighty years ago when Gregory Ilea took control of the United States, he did so through manipulation and deceit, transforming it from a republic into a dictatorship with a royal family at the top. His younger son Damon began the first Selection as a way to unite the country behind the royal family - keeping alive a version of the American dream - any girl could be a princess.
What I didn't like about The Elite was the character of America. Her indecision results in her not treating either Maxon or Aspen honestly. It causes her to lead on both Maxon and Aspen when they each ask her to choose them. Prince Maxon asks America near the end of the novel to be completely honest with him - something America has not done because he doesn't know about her ongoing relationship with Aspen. Prince Maxon's assessment of her character near the end of the novel is quite accurate. America is both impulsive and rash, and quite self-absorbed. This is demonstrated even better when America has a heart-to-heart talk with her major competitor in the Selection and realizes how this girl has been much more thoughtful and supportive of Prince Maxon. If America truly wants to win the Prince's heart she will have to change. But of course the problem has always been, does she want to win?!!
Essentially, The Elite is The Bachelor, Miss Universe and Princess Diaries all rolled into one. Readers who enjoy a novel with plenty of romantic tension will love The Elite. The final installment in the Selection series is due out in 2014 and is tentatively titled, The One. This should be a blockbuster final book as we finally learn who wins the Selection!!
The Elite by Kiera Cass
New York: Harper Teen 2013