Bookmarked: Pick Me, Choose Me in ‘The Selection’

Tweenage book readers of the 2010s know intimately of the passionate, dangerous love found in young adult dystopian romance, as well as the classic tropes that accompany them. Though the Valentine’s season is coming to a close, it’s never too late to revisit this nostalgia in The Phoenix’s first Bookmarked story of “The Selection.”

Avid book readers may have recognized the late 2000s and early 2010s as a thrilling season of dangerous, high-stakes teenage romance. The phenomenon popularized the young adult (YA) genre with a slew of dystopian romance series.

Though the Valentine’s season is coming to a close, it’s never too late to revisit these old gems. 

Included in the list of YA canonical literature is “The Selection” series by Kiera Cass. The first of the series, appropriately titled “The Selection,” was published in 2012 and followed by “The Elite” in 2013 and “The One” in 2014. 

An epilogue continues the story in “The Heir” (2015) and “The Crown” (2016). These two additions take place 20 years after the events in the first three, following the daughter of the original leading character, America Singer.

The original trilogy takes place in the dystopian country of Illéa, where society has been split into castes numbered one through eight. The numbers are hierarchical, with One representing the elites and royals of the state. The lower castes are each confined to a specific career, ranging from scientists to business owners. 

America is a Five living in the artists’ caste and working as a musician. 

The prince of Illéa, Maxon Schreave, announces his intention to follow tradition and hold the Selection — a process in which 35 girls from all castes are selected for a competition of the prince’s heart. 

Typical of YA dystopian romance leads, America has an “I’m different” attitude. She refuses to cast her ballot in the Selection and only relents after a monetary bribe from her mother.

America’s raw boldness continues when she’s selected, and her discontent follows her all the way to the palace. In her first series of meetings with Prince Maxon, she knees him in the groin, accuses him of being shallow and desperate and makes it known to him that she’s at the palace “by mistake.” She announces, “My plan is to enjoy the food until you kick me out.” 

A common, heavily-criticized pitfall of YA romance is the tendency of female leads to turn their daring nature into a “holier-than-thou” stance — a subcategory of their “not-like-other-girls” personality. 

With this disassociation from common femininity, the female lead gets the guy. It seems to say women have to exist separately from the feminine sphere if they want to receive a man’s love. 

Sadly, “The Selection” falls victim to this theme, like when America disavows the one-track minds of other girls early on, telling the Prince “They’re probably waiting to pounce on you.” 

Prince Maxon responds eagerly to America’s “not-like-other-girls” demeanor. He admires her fierce resilience and even humors her request to wear pants within the palace walls.

Similar instances happen in the later books. As the size of the selected competitors becomes thinner as girls are eliminated, the maliciousness intensifies through competition, extending not only to America but other girls as well.

But when the prize is a royal marriage, who wouldn’t indulge in a heated rivalry?

Such is true in the series’ third book when America enters the dining room in a deep red, strapless dress and her competitor Kriss Ambers takes note.

“You look trashy,” Kriss said.

 “Well, you look jealous,” America responded.

Despite creating a rift between America and the others through cutthroat competition, “The Selection” still works to bolster feminine camaraderie as a more prominent theme. Though perhaps not perfectly, it’s better than expected from a YA romance series.

“So here I was expecting at the very best a cordial welcome from the girls who were prepared to fight me to the death for someone I didn’t want,” Cass writes as America meets the other girls for the first time. “Instead I was embraced.”

This is especially true in the latter half of the trilogy, when America forms deep connections with the four other girls left in the Selection. 

A memorable scene is when America becomes distressed as she realizes the true weight of what it means to win the Selection. She finds peace in holding the hands of the other girls, who comfort her without question.

“And there we were, in the background of it all, holding on to one another,” Cass writes about the linking of hands. “The Perfectionist, the Sweetheart, the Diva…and me.” 

And really, without the dramatics of competition, we may have never gotten Prince Maxon’s most famous line. 

“Break my heart. Break it a thousand times if you like,” Maxon whispers to America in a tense moment of life or death. “It was only ever yours to break anyway.”

Though soft and bland at times, Prince Maxon’s everlasting adoration of America is refreshing. It is precisely what is to be expected from guilty pleasure romance reads such as this. 

Passionate lines emerge from his devotion, wooing the readers with Maxon’s romantic charms. 

“You are not the world but you are everything that makes the world good,” Maxon writes to America in his last love letter. “Without you, my life would still exist, but that’s all it would manage to do.”

Their enemies-to-friends-to-lovers trope enchants the reader as their relationship builds off sassy remarks and tender honesty. 

Maxon and America’s relationship feels real, making it more attractive. They quarrel and forgive and love. 

These books are still a classic in the YA dystopian romance category, and their easy readability makes them a strong contender for a quick reread.

Lose yourself in the drama of “The Selection” this Valentine’s week. 

Featured image by Aidan Cahill | The Phoenix

Catherine Meyer

Catherine Meyer