America Singer is a teenager in Illea, a young country that classifies its caste system with a number. She has four siblings [Kenna (married a four) and Kota (sculptor) are older; May and Gerad are younger] and her family are all artists rated as Fives. May and her dad are painters while America and her mom, Magda, are musicians. A letter has come in the mail inviting America to participate in the Selection (bride choosing tradition for Prince Maxon). Her mom is obsessed with moving to a lower number (higher caste) and begs America to enter. Despite the compensation her family would receive, America has no interest in participating. She saves her dinner int he refrigerator. Late that night, America sneaks out her window with the food she saved and brings it into the treehouse in the backyard. Someone is there waiting for her.
Aspen waited for America in the treehouse so they can spend some time together. Even though he is a Six (worker/servant), America still wants to spend the rest of her life with him. They have been together two years and she is willing to become a Six to be with him. He points out how much of a struggle their lives would be having to continue taking care of Aspen’s family like he does now. She promises they will be careful with the number of kids they have, but birth control is not readily available to the lower classes. Aspen says his twin sisters are entering themselves in the Selection. America realizes if one of them was chosen, it would solve all of their problems. Aspen asks America to enter because he would feel bad if she passed up the opportunity for a better life because of him. She agrees knowing the chances are very unlikely for her to be picked. They make out for a while before they both have to go home to avoid getting in trouble with the law for being out past curfew.
Magda wakes up America with a proposition. She promises America she can no work on her own and keep half of what she earns if she sends in the form for the Selection. America agrees and fills out her form. She asks her dad if he would let her marry a lower class. He wants her to find love no matter what, but he warns her that love can turn to hate under too much stress. She talks to Gerad about finding a talent within the artisan caste, but he isn’t interested. America reminds him the law prevents him from doing anything else. America walks to the local Services Office with her mom to find it full of women. Lena, Aspen’s mother, comes in with the twins, Kamber and Celia. They point out a picture will be taken and the process isn’t as random as advertised, which is only proven by the detailed questions on the form. Lena says she thinks Aspen has found a girl he will marry because he is happier and started putting money away. America is excited to hear this and smiles for her picture.
With nine days left for girls to enter their names into the selection, the Singer family gathers around the television for the Friday night announcements. After talk about the war in New Asia and the draft, Gavril Fadaye, a newsman who generally handles holidays and royal events, interviews Prince Maxon. America thinks he looks stiff and boring. She feels sorry for the girl that ends up with him. She asks her mom about the current queen’s caste before she was Selected. She was a four. Mason is nervous about 37 women moving into the palace, but plans to use the process to find out what he wants in a wife. Later that night, Aspen knocks on America’s window. She lets him in and they make out in bed for a while. They don’t dare go any further knowing they could be arrested if caught. Aspen leaves after they say they love each other.
America prepares a feast for Aspen and sneaks it out to the treehouse. When he arrives, he is embarrassed he can’t provide for her. He refuses to make her a Six and brakes up with her. America is crushed, but can’t let anyone know what happened. The next Friday night, the announcement about the Selection is to be made. The Singer family gathers around the television early. They watch as girls are announced and their pictures are shown. America is shocked when her own name is called. Magda and May celebrate and the phone starts ringing off the hook.
Over the next week, people are coming and going to prepare America to go to the palace. A skinny man with greased back hair comes to explain the rules. He has to verbally confirm that she is still a virgin. He tells her she must follow all laws, not fight with or sabotage the other girls, and cannot have any other romantic relationships. If she is not chosen, she will become a Three (though her family will still be Fives) because girls have had trouble going back to their previous lives afterwards. As the man leaves, he privately tells America not to deny the prince anything he asks for. America is furious. Aspen comes over with flowers for her from the twins. America asks him to help her pack (this seems normal as her family is Aspen’s family’s patrons and they hire them to help out whenever they can afford it). She is furious with him when he says her picture was beautiful. She tells him it was when she though he was going to propose. He tells her he wouldn’t have done it before the draft (twice a year for 19 year old boys; if drafted, they are in service until they are 23). She gives him all of her money she saved up and all of the pennies he gave her for singing to him. After Aspen leaves, she packs the penny jar and the one penny that stuck to it.
The day for America to leave for the palace arrives. She is presented to her hometown crowd by the mayor. She finds Aspen in the crowd and he has his arms around another girl who is also a Six. She decides she is done with him and that she is going to make the most of her situation. She says goodbye to her family. Just as she is about to get into the car with her aide, Misty, Aspen calls out her name. She looks at him and he seems upset. She turns away and gets into the car.
America is the first girl to arrive at the airport. She takes advantage of the time to promise herself she wouldn’t think of Aspen at all while she is at the palace. Marlee (a Four) and Ashley (a Three) arrive next. Marlee is excited and immediately hugs America in greeting. Ashley is pleasant but very proper. Celeste (a two) arrive last and intimates the girls with her confidence. America decides she won’t be looked down on by her and will have to get used to the attitudes. When their plan lands, there is an enormous crowd to greet them. America is shocked that she has supporters outside her providence. She spends the most time with the people while the other girls wait on her. She gets in the car to allow the next round of girls their turn.
They arrive at the palace and are taken to the Women’s Room (normally were royal females entertain themselves) to be made over. America introduces herself to several other contestants. As they start to make her over, a man comes over to ask what she wants her image to be. He is surprised when she just wants to be herself and tells her honesty will be her edge over the others. After her hair and makeup are done, she is dressed and put in front of a camera to answer a few questions. She is relieved they are squeak and not too personal. Sylvia takes them on a tour of the palace. They are not allowed on the third floor (royal quarters) or outside without permission. They are taken to their rooms and America is surprised to find three maids anxious to serve her. She sends them away until she needs to get ready to go out again. America naps until they wake her and start to get her dressed. The girls are taken back to the Women’s Room to watch the Friday night Report. America sits with Marlee, who is excited when she is presented as a crowd favorite. When they show America greeting the crowd after coming off the plane, the other girls look at her and want her gone.
The thirty seven girls are marched down to the dining room for dinner. America enjoys the food, but the girls keep giving her mean looks. On the way back to their rooms, Marlee explains to America how girls will covertly try to put her down. She tells her not to let them know they are getting to her. Back in her room, America’s three maids, Anne, Lucy, and Mary, help her get ready for bed. She asks for time alone and Lucy points out one of them is supposed to stay with her through the night in case she needs anything. America commands them to go to bed. When they are gone, she starts to unpack her things. She puts the jar with the penny on the shelf by her bed and starts to cry over everything she lost in a single day. She goes onto her balcony, but it makes her feel even more like she is in a cage. She runs down the hall to the doors that lead to the garden, but the guards stop her. She tells them she can’t breath and falls into one’s arms. Prince Maxon arrives and tells them to let her out. She runs until she collapses onto a bench. Mason joins her. She tells him she thinks the game is ridiculous and she plans to just enjoy the food until he kicks her out while the other girls are fighting for him or his crown. He tells her he doesn’t get to meet many woman and he is truly looking for a partner for the rest of his life. He offers to let the staff know she prefers the garden, but she says she doesn’t want anything from him. HE asks her not to tell the other girls they have met before they were officially supposed to. She agrees and he leaves her alone.
Anne, Mary, and Lucy come to wake up America and get her ready for the day. She keeps her makeup, jewelry, and dress simple and goes into the hall to wait for the other girls. when they are all ready, they are escorted to the Great Room to learn about table etiquette. Prince Maxon comes in and introduces himself. He takes each girl individually to meet with them. When it is America’s turn, she apologizes for her behavior the previous night. He asks if she could ever love him and she honestly says no. She admits her family needs the money and there is someone at him she is not ready to face. She offers to be his friend and confidant if he lets her stay, even if only for a week. He agrees and asks to call her “my dear,” which she has objected to several times. She denies the request, pointing out how he calls all the girls the same pet name and they all love it. After everyone has had a turn, Maxon dismisses the girls to breakfast, except eight girls he asks to stay behind with him. America goes to the dining room and is served breakfast with the king and queen When Maxon joins them, the other girls do not. Ashley (quiet proper girl) was one of them.
As America is enjoying her breakfast, the prince singles her out to ask about it. She admits it is very good and thinks her sister, May, would cry over the strawberry tarts. He makes a deal with her - he will send some to her family and if May cries, America will be allowed to wear pants for a week. If not, America will take a walk through the garden with him the next evening. All of the girls are told to write letters to their families. America is thrilled to receive responses from her family the next day. That night, Maxon escorts America to the garden. She tells him about her siblings and how she wants to have a large family someday. She admits she loves working with music and hopes to continue. Mason turns towards her when they reach the cover of the trees. America panics when he gets too close and knees him in the thigh. She warns him not to touch her. He is insulted she thinks so little of him. She waits in the garden until everyone has gone to dinner before returning to her room to eat alone as Maxon commanded. There is a large box for her and she opens it to find several pairs of pants and a note from Maxon saying he couldn’t deny her a simple request, but she should only wear them on Saturdays.
America doesn’t hear from anyone the next morning, so she assumes she is allowed at breakfast. The other girls question her about her date with Maxon, but she is too embarrassed to give details. Suddenly, there is a lot of noise. The royal family rushes to pull down metal blinds over the windows and America goes to help, inspiring a few other girls to do the same. The king commands them into a corner while he and the queen talk to a guard. America notices how calm Queen Amberley is and tells Marlee to act the same. Mason comes to check on America, who is worried about her maids. He assures her they will already be in hiding. She apologizes for the previous night and Maxon is shocked to learn what she was told before coming to the palace. He accepts and decides to let her stay. She asks about the rebel attacks. Mason explains there are two groups: Northerners (avoid killing, ransack rooms, looking for something, frequent attacks) and Southerners (less frequent, more lethal). She gives him advice on comforting the other girls and points out Marlee as someone he should pay special attention to. When they are deemed safe, Marlee tells America about talking with Maxon on the way back to their rooms. When America gets to hers, she finds Lucy shaking with Anne and Mary trying to comfort her. They get her into the bed and Mary hums to her. Anne explains Lucy and her dad sold themselves into servitude to try to help her mom recover from a disease (she died anyway). The woman (a Three) sold them to the palace when her son fell in love with Lucy. A few years ago, there was a brutal rebel attack. A man was dragging Lucy off to rape here when a guard shot the man in the head. Lucy was just left under the man’s body and was expected to return to work immediately after. Anne explains how Lucy can’t get caught having an episode or they won’t let her be a maid (honored and coveted position among servants). America wants to find some way to help Lucy.
While the palace calms down the next few days, America spends most of her time with her maids learning about what goes on around them. Mason comes to visit and the maids awkwardly excuse themselves. He tells America they need a signal to alert the other when they need to talk, but keeps getting distracted by her room. They decide they will tug on their ear as a signal. That Friday evening, America is prepared to appear on the Report with the other girls. She takes a seat in the back row and Marlee joins her even though there are empty seats up front. She asks to talk to America later. Mason catches America’s attention and tugs on his ear. She does the same to acknowledge. After several announcements about rebels causing issues through the country, the attention turns to the Selection. Gavel talks to Maxon about his experience so far. He tells about one contestant scolding him when they first met. He chalks it up to homesickness. He admits she is still there and he plans to keep it that way. The girls are confused and America admits to Marlee it was her.
America sends her maids away before Maxon arrives. He says if she keeps doing that, he will have to post a guard at her door. They pass a few girls on their way to their bench in the garden. Mason tells her he is constantly working and learning how to run a country. He is terrified that he won’t find a girl to love him. America tells him she thinks his soulmate is one of the girls. He asks to hear her love story and she eventually acquiesces. Aspen was friends with her brother, Kota, when they were kids. He as also part of the family of Sixes their family would use whenever they could afford to hire them. Kota started selling off his sculptures and made enough money to move out. He hired Aspen to help him set up and America was there voluntarily (before she realized Kota was abandoning the family to elevate his own status). She and Aspen hit it off and started breaking curfew to meet in secret. They were in love. She goes on to tell him about the breakup. He is furious of her and puts his arm around her. He promises he will keep her there as long as he can or until she is ready to go home.
The next morning, the girls are in the Women’s Room to meet and greet with any guests the palace may have. Marlee hesitates telling America about her date with Maxon. America assures her she is pulling for Marlee, and they can trust each other. Marlee tells her all about their movie date. America wonders why Maxon didn’t tell her about any of it. Some of the other girls haven’t had a date with the prince yet and one comes to ask about America’s second date. She tells them they just talked in the garden, but most of the girls seem mad at her. Suddenly, a girl named Anna slaps Celeste. America is sure Celeste provoked the normally gentle girl, but Anna is still the one sent home.
The next week starts with history lessons given by Sylvia. The United Stats was so far in debt with China that China invaded and started using the US as a puppet government. When Russia started invading countries (spreading themselves too thin), North America banded together to end all foreign domination. The new country was named after the man who led the charge. America and some of the other girls wonder why there aren’t any history books. She remembers finding a US History book (burned at the edges with pages missing) at her parents house. Her dad told her not to let anyone know she read it. Later, the girls are all dressed the same to have their picture taken with the prince. America notices how easily people seem to like manipulative Celeste when she wants them to. When it is America’s turn for pictures, Maxon has to tease her into smiling. Their session is interrupted by an advisor asking what to do about rebel attacks. He tells him to send troops to cut of their path. The mail comes later that week and America is happy to hear from May, who wants to know all about the prince. America uses a pice of pater to send Maxon a note that she is tugging on her ear. He rushes to make sure she is okay. She tells him she just wanted to see him. She convinces him it isn’t an emergency and tells him to get back to work. He decides he can be away from the budget meeting for a while since they don’t listen to him. He tells her he wants to increase funding to education. America explains how that isn’t enough. She tries to explain what it is like to watch loved ones start or watching a nine year old whipped in the street because he stole food. Mason kisses her forehead and then stalks off.
Mason and King Clarkson are late to dinner that night. The prince announces Twos and Threes will no longer have payment sent to their families for participating in the Selection. Fours and Fives would have their payments reduced. The funding will be going to a new project. America tries to get his attention, but he doesn’t look at her. The maids show America the special red dress they made for the televised interview. She tries to convince them to keeping it simple is better, but they insist considering how all the other girls are starting to dress like her to gain the prince’s favor. When she shows up, America sees all the other girls are wearing simpler dresses in all shades of blue. Celeste pulls America aside and demands they trade dresses. America refuses. Celeste digs her nails into America’s arm and rips her sleeve. The other girls help America fix her dress and want her to get Celeste kicked out for this incident. The Report starts with Maxon explaining he is starting assistance to feed families in lower castes. America is so touched she is near tears. The interviews start and she anxiously waits her turn. She makes her way over to Gavril to be questioned. She tells the country about her time at the palace and dates with the prince. She admits she is the one who yelled at Maxon and the prince has her tell the true story. He asks what she thinks of the prince and she genuinely says he is a good person that will make a great husband and king. She makes the mistake of calling Maxon by his given name rather than by his formal title once. Right after the show, Maxon is eating for America in her room. She assures him she meant what she said about him. He says she will have to try to be less beautiful to keep him from falling in love with her. He kisses her, but she pulls away because she wasn’t expecting it. Realizing it was his first kiss, she “erases” the memory and they kiss again. He knows she still loves Aspen, but wants to know if he has a chance with her. She says it is a possibility.
A few days later, Olivia tells the girls that Maxon kissed her. America is jealous at first, but after talking with a few girls, they realized they’d rather be sent home than picked for being fake. The jealousy starts to come back a little when another girl shows jeweled hair combs the prince gave her. Sylvia arrives to tell them the queen’s family and the King and Queen of Swendway are coming to visit at the same time in a few days. America finds herself in the garden with a lot of people. Two girls call her over to talk to the queen’s sister, Adele. When Adele walks away, the girls make fun of her. America reminds them she grew up a four like one of them did as well. She tries to get away from the commotion, but Maxon unexpectedly takes her picture. America wants to tell him about her frustration, but Celeste calls him over. America tells him to watch out for her before sending him off. She goes to the Women’s Room to be alone, but finds Adele there. Adele tells America about how strong her sister is. Amberley went through several miscarriages trying to have children. She promises the queen will start showing more affection toward the girls once their numbers are down. America realizes the struggles she would have to deal with to be with Maxon make her current ones seem ridiculous. She excuses herself and goes to find Maxon. He pulls on his ear and she returns the gesture.
After a month of living at the palace, America is finally becoming comfortable. One day while walking alone in the garden, Marlee tells America her time with the prince is awkward and empty. America tries to tell her to give it time, but Marlee insists. She thinks she is only there because she is favored by the people. America suggests she tell Maxon how she feels. Suddenly, Marlee decides to give it time and avoids America for a few days. Mason has a cancelled meeting and calls for America so they can spend the afternoon together. As they walk down the hall, one of the guards gasps. They turn to him and it is Aspen. America tells Maxon he is from her hometown. Mason assigns Aspen to guard America’s door. America is distracted through their movie date, debating whether to stay or go back home. She decides not to tell Maxon who Aspen really is. He notices she seems troubled and sends her for a nap.
America starts spending her time in the Women’s Room because men can’t enter without the queen’s permission. A few days later, there is a birthday party for one of the girls, Kriss. America doesn’t have a gift, so she decides to take a violin with her and play a song. However, there is already a string quartet for the occasion. Kiss makes the rounds to talk to all the girls. She is dressed to look like a royal bride. She and Marlee convince America to play her a song. Afterwards, America opens her eyes to see Maxon watching her. She curtseys to him and the other girls follow suit. Celeste spills her red punch all over Kriss’ white gown. Kiss leaves the room crying and Maxon follows to comfort her. America decides she needs to get rid of Celeste.
America tries to tell Maxon about Celeste’s subtle sabotage of the other Selected, but he doesn’t believe she knows the girls well enough to judge Celeste’s character. She is frustrated and shows her arms in the air. He yells at her saying she is out of line and leaves her so he can spend time with someone else that will appreciate him. He tries to get her attention and pulls his ear later, but she ignores him through dinner and the Report. She goes directly to her room afterwards and finds Aspen at her door. They address each other formally and then America goes to bed. She can’t sleep. Aspen slips into her room and into her bed. He asks if she loves Maxon and she admits she doesn’t. He kisses her for a while and she does nothing to stop him. He tells her when he was drafted, he was sent where all soldiers go to train. they gave him shots that bulked him up quickly. He was the smartest in his group, so he was sent to the palace. He has to leave before he is caught missing by another guard. She tells him she has a lot to tell him. He promises to see her again, knowing they could both be killed for what they are doing.
The next morning, America feels guilty and pretends to have a headache to keep from going to the Women’s Room. Aspen comes in saying he needs to talk to her about security and she asks the maids to leave for a few minutes. He tells her he regretted breaking up with her since he left the treehouse. The only reason he had another girl in his arms at her send-off was because she tripped and he caught her. The maids come back and Aspen pretends he was checking America’s ailment. Everything seems to be the way it was back home. That night, the maids wake up America to send her to the basement because of a rebel attack. She commands her maids to go with her. The guard at the door tries to stop the maids from entering the safe hold, but America refuses to go in without them. Once inside, Sylvia tells the maids to start getting people refreshments. America stops them and tells them to only serve the royal family, not the people who left their own maids behind. Aspen comes to check on America first. Mason makes his rounds. When he gets to America, she asks whether the rebels are Northerners or Southerners. He confirms her fears they are Southerners. When everything is cleared, America returns to her room to find it trashed. She is taping pictures back together when Sylvia comes in. She says three girls have asked to go home and gives her a cell phone to call her family. Her mom is relieved to hear from her and lets May talk. May asks her to come home, but America says she can’t. May thinks she is in love with Maxon. America knows she has to figure out her feelings.
The next morning at breakfast, America tugs on her ear and Maxon returns the signal. Mason announces he will be narrowing down his choices to 6 girls of the 19 remaining. America, Marlee, Kriss, and Celeste are among the those that are staying. When the prince comes to see her late, America asks why he chose her to stay. He explains he would send the rest home instantly if he was sure America didn’t have any other motives to stay. He asks if they are just friends and she says they are more. She lets him kiss her.
That night, Aspen comes to see America. She stops him when he tries to kiss her. She explains she and Maxon have feelings for each other. Aspen is the reason she signed up for the Selection and was willing to get to know Maxon in the first place. She is going to give herself time to make an educated decision. Aspen says he will fight for her. She points out the palace isn’t the safest place to do that. The next morning, America wakes up feeling for the first time that she is part of the Selection.