America Singer is not interested in competing with thirty-four other girls for the hand of Prince Maxon. In the caste-ruled nation of Illéa, her family is just three classes away from homelessness, so yes, they could use the elevation that would come from her participation in the Selection, a program to choose the next princess very reminiscent of the reality show The Bachelor, but the stuffy, suit-wearing young prince she sees on TV doesn’t interest her– and she’s secretly already taken, by Aspen, a boy a caste below her, who she hopes might be thinking of proposing. But when things with Aspen suddenly go sour, and she’s offered a spot in the competition, America sees no alternative to leaving her simple life behind and entering a world of decadent luxury, fierce female competitiveness, and a prince who might be more human than she realized.
The Selection was one of those books that I loved… to yell at. Granted, maybe every book I read besides the ones I love fall into that category— the possible future editor in me just loves to critique, so I rarely read anything without enjoyment. The only books I truly don’t enjoy are heavy English-class books that are technically sound but don’t appeal to me, because those I can neither love nor properly complain about.I’m looking at you, In the Lake of the Woods.
I think this was one of those books where the premise carried the whole thing, and the other aspects let the heavy lifting slip. The main thing that made me feel like I enjoyed reading this book and wanted to keep going was interest in the details of the competition. As someone who’s watched several seasons of The Bachelorette (never the Bachelor, but same difference), I was really curious to see how things would play out, what the challenges or tests for the girls would be, and whether America would fall for Maxon.
There was a lot of reliance on “telling” emotional descriptions rather than implication through concrete details and body language, as well as repetitive exposition of things that were already clear, which always peeves me. “Maxon looked at me for a moment, clearly wondering if this was really okay.” How did she read that from him? “’Why don’t you run along?’ I said, my annoyance leaking into my voice again.” That was clearly a snarky thing to say; we could have concluded for ourselves that she sounded annoyed. It might sound nitpicky when I isolate quotes like that, but those issues were a common occurrence, and they just made it feel less professional.
America has two romance lines, with Aspen and with Prince Maxon, but I didn’t really feel a strong investment in either of them. We only really have one love scene with Aspen before America goes to the palace, and it just didn’t quite win me over. Her relationship with Maxon gets more development, but it felt a little forced. I’m not sure I like Maxon; he seems very stiff and sort of in-genuine. Of course, that’s what America thought at first, too, but unlike her, I never really warmed to him.
There’s a scene early on in the competition where America gets suddenly claustrophobic in her fancy room and makes a crazed, hyperventilating dash for the palace garden, leading to her collapsing when a guard won’t let her out. I’m not a big fan of the writerly trope of people getting so worked up about something that they actually can’t breathe. Have you ever seen someone actually react that way to something? Because I haven’t. I’m an arachnophobe who was once trapped in a small canoe with a spider, and even then, I didn’t lose the ability to breathe. It’s just not realistic. And then Maxon comes to talk to her, and she generally insinuates things about him being a bourgeois prick, and they do the whole “wow, nobody’s ever spoken so sassily to me before, that’s so refreshing and attractive” gambit. *Sigh*
Another thing that irritated me was that America kept doing the ditsy-heroine thing where she assumed people were having negative feelings towards her which they clearly weren’t. Maxon made it pretty clear from the start that he liked her, but every time they had a minor spat, she’d be convinced he was sending her home first thing the next day.
Well, do I have anything nice to say? The actual plot really was good. I can tell, because I was motivated to keep picking the book up and reading it. I wanted to know what happens, and I still do—I plan to read the sequel. I liked America’s relationship with her little sister May. That was cute. I liked America’s friend Marlee, and her exuberant maids, Anne, Mary, and Lucy. The intricacies of the country’s caste system were interesting. And of course, the cover is gorgeous.
One other thought— when I read the blurb for this book, I thought of Gail Garson Levine’s story “The Princess Test”, published in her book The Fairy’s Return. Levine’s story is similar in premise: a number of girls are assembled at a palace to choose which will marry the prince and be the next princess. But instead of just dating the prince like in The Selection, the girls in “The Princess Test” faced a series of princesshood-challenges; for example, they were each served a salad with an offensive sprig of parsley in it (parsley apparently doesn’t belong in royal salad), and they got points if they noticed and picked it out. I was expecting The Selection’s competition to have, obviously not the same challenges, but some form of tests for the girls to go through. I think that would have been fun.
And what’s the deal with her last name? A professional singer named America Singer? I assumed at first that people in her society were given names based on their chosen profession, but everybody else has normal names. Seriously… what?
It wasn’t terrible, it’s just that there are so many phenomenal books out there, and so little time. But if you do decide to read it or have already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts.