America Singer is sixteen-year-old girl. She and her family live in Illéa, which is set up by a numerical caste system. The Singer family are Fives, which means they are required to work as artists and musicians. America receives an invitation in the mail for the Selection, a competition where thirty-five young women between the ages of sixteen and twenty, of any caste, go to the palace to compete for the Prince’s hand in marriage. America’s mother is desperate for America to compete and raise their family out of poverty. With winter approaching, there will be fewer jobs for the family. Over dinner, America’s mother pressures America to accept the invitation, but America stubbornly resists. She resents being the oldest in the family and having so much responsibility. America leaves the table and takes her plate out back to her tiny, candlelit tree house. There, someone is waiting for her.
America’s boyfriend, Aspen, lights a tiny candle and greets her. Aspen is a Six; his caste is made up of servants and people who do indoor work. America and Aspen have been dating for two years. They keep their relationship a secret since inter-caste marriages are typically frowned upon. America tells Aspen about the invitation to the Selection, but he already knows as his twin sixteen-year-old sisters received invitations too. Aspen surprises America by encouraging her to compete. He says he doesn’t want to her to regret losing a chance to marry a Prince over him. Annoyed, America brushes off his statement, saying she only wants to marry him. America hands him her plate of food. America knows Aspen works several jobs to support his family and often goes without food to allow his younger siblings and mother to eat. He pays America a penny to sing for him. Later, she puts the penny in a jar of pennies she keeps for him.
America’s mother comes to her room early the next morning. She offers America a deal: If America applies to participate in the Selection, she’ll allow America to keep half of her earnings from her violin performances. America feels thrilled, thinking she now has a chance to save money for her and Aspen to marry while still pleasing her family. America fills out her application, which is long and full of personal questions. She and her mother go to the Services Office to drop off her application. There, America notices that many of the girls in line to drop off their applications are prettied up. America didn’t realize that she would have her photo taken, and she didn’t put much effort into her appearance. While waiting in line, they meet Mrs. Leger, Aspen’s mother, and his two sisters, Celia and Kamber. While chatting, Mrs. Leger reveals that she suspects Aspen has a secret girlfriend he’s saving up to propose to. Elated, America sits down for her photo, thinking that Aspen is secretly planning to marry her.
The Singer family gathers to watch the Illéa Capital Report, a weekly broadcast on Friday nights. The palace reports that Illéa is still at war in New Asia, as rebel forces continue to attack, and that there will be a draft for more soldiers. King Clarkson, the Queen, and Prince Maxon appear on screen. America admits to herself that Maxon is attractive, but she thinks he appears uptight. She imagines that life with him would be boring. The family chats about how the present Queen was chosen by the Selection process and that she was a Four. Gavril Fadaye, a celebrity spokesperson for the palace, gives an update on the Selection process. He reports that thousands of girls have applied and that they will be announcing the lucky thirty-five soon. Later that night, Aspen sneaks into America’s bedroom. They kiss passionately but are careful to stop short of having sex. They know the penalty could be jail.
A week later, America and Aspen meet again in the tree house. America lays out an impressive spread of food for Aspen and then tells him about her mother’s bribe. America worked extra jobs to save more money for their future and has used some of the money to make larger meals. Suddenly uneasy, Aspen refuses the food. He says that he, not she, should be the provider, adding that he doesn’t want to be a charity case. America, trying to ease his embarrassment, implies that she’ll say yes if he asks her to marry him and that once they’re together for real, it won’t matter. Aspen firmly tells America, “No.” He explains that he can’t allow her to become another “invisible” Six like he is and says that he can’t see her anymore. Distraught, America watches Aspen leave. A few days later, Gavril announces the list of contestants chosen for the Selection. America and her family watch as her name is announced on-screen.
The next week, a stream of palace officials come to the Singers’ home to prepare America for the Selection. They fit her for dresses, inspect the house, and ask her personal questions. The officials explain to America that she will live in the palace for the duration of the contest, which could last weeks or years, depending on when the Prince makes his decision. She will receive compensation as long as she is at the palace. Since America’s body is now considered the property of Illéa, she must take vitamins and can’t refuse the Prince, whatever he asks or wants. She is now caste Three, but her family will remain caste Five. If America becomes one of the last ten contestants, she will be part of the Elite.
Later, Aspen arrives at the house to deliver flowers for America from his sisters. America “hires” Aspen on the spot to help her pack. Inside her bedroom, they talk. Aspen explains that he wanted to propose but was waiting to see whether he’d be drafted. America understands, since new soldiers could be sent away for four years at the start, but she’s still furious. She tries to pay him from the jar of pennies she’s kept for him. He refuses. Angry, she pours the pennies into his hand. One penny remains stuck to the bottom of the jar. Aspen leaves. America feels hurt and confused.
Each of the Selected are given a send-off from their home province. The whole town appears for the celebration. America’s older siblings, Kenna and Kota, come too. The mayor invites America onstage to say a few words before she leaves. While looking out at the crowd, America notices that the girls from the lower castes are celebrating her while the girls from the upper castes stare at her coldly. She searches the crowd for Aspen and sees him, his arm around the waist of another girl, Brenna. America considers whether he’d been seeing her the whole time and if she were the girl Aspen was saving to propose to. America catches Aspen’s face in the crowd again, but this time, he looks pained. As America says her goodbyes to her family as she is led away, she hears Aspen call for her. She looks at him one last time, shaking her head.
Officials take America to the airport, where she will fly to the palace with other contestants. She feels nervous getting on the plane, having never flown before. She meets the warm and gregarious Marlee, a Four, and Ashley, a Three. Marlee and America feel relaxed around each other and chat. The plane waits for the last girl to arrive, a brunette wearing three-inch heels and bright-red lipstick. It is Celeste, a Two. She acts dismissive and rude. America quickly realizes that Celeste will be a problem. When the plane lands, a large crowd of fans greets the girls, with some fans holding signs of the girls’ faces. Marlee is a fan favorite. America focuses on the young children in the crowd, shaking their hands and giving them autographs. Celeste rolls her eyes at America as they leave together in the car.
On the drive to the palace, Celeste whispers to America that she wonders whether Marlee slept with anyone to get attention at the fan greeting. America silently realizes that life at the palace might get fierce. When the girls arrive, Silvia, the event manager, ushers them to their beauty stations for makeovers. Film crews crowd the stations, documenting the makeovers and interviewing the girls for a “makeover special” that will air the following Friday on the Illéa Capital Report. An interviewer probes America for dirt about the competition so far, but America remains diplomatic. The stylist asks America how she wants her to play with her “look,” but America snaps back that she doesn’t want to change for some guy she doesn’t know. America’s look remains natural, while other girls’ vamp up their hair and dress. The girls gather to watch clips of the makeover segment. Marlee and America are portrayed favorably. America looks around the room and sees some of the girls giving her cold looks.
At dinner, the girls continue to stare at America coldly. America wonders how Marlee, who also has sparked the girls’ jealousy, is still able to chat with them. Silvia sends the girls to bed after dinner since they are scheduled to meet Prince Maxon in the morning. Marlee takes America aside and tries to calm her nerves. Marlee explains that she’s just more used to being around girls than America, which is true, since America was homeschooled. In her room, America dismisses her maids, Anne, Mary, and Lucy, as she wants to be alone.
Reaching into her bags, America finds the jar with the single penny stuck to its bottom. The sight of the jar sends her into a panic. America rushes out of her room looking for the front door. Two guards stop her. Maxon sees them and orders them to let her outside. Maxon follows America into the garden. He calls her dear, which sends America into a rage. She explains that she feels like she’s in a cage. Maxon maintains his composure and tries to comfort her. He tells her he hopes she finds something worth being in the cage for and tells her that she’s allowed to go into the garden anytime she wants. America, surprised by his kindness and sympathy, relaxes a bit.
The next morning, America catches her maids eyeing the dirt stains on her nightdress from her time in the garden the night before, but none say a word about them. They offer her some jewelry, but America chooses the accessories she brought from home instead. At breakfast, America notices how all the girls have put a lot of effort into standing out. She’s consoled by the thought that despite her fancy dress, she still looks like herself.
Prince Maxon arrives. He surveys the room and acknowledges America with a smile. He tells the girls that he will be inviting them over to chat one by one. When it’s America’s turn, Maxon greets her as dear, poking fun at her from the night before. America retorts that she is still not his “dear.” He asks America how she slept, and she apologizes for her outbursts. Maxon asks America directly if she wants to be in the Selection. America admits she’s there for the stipend and is in love with someone back home. In a moment of boldness, America offers a trade: She’ll be an “insider” for Maxon, a friend, if he lets her stay. Maxon agrees to the deal. When America gets back to the table, she notices eight girls have already been cut.
Breakfast continues. America notices she’s the only Five left. When she bites into a strawberry tart, she lets out a moan. Maxon hears her and loudly asks her how she’s enjoying her food. America quickly comes up with an appropriate response for the crowd, saying that she’d bet her sister May would cry tasting such a delicious tart. Maxon accepts the bet, and they set the terms: If May cries after tasting a tart, America gets to wear pants for the week, but if May doesn’t cry, he gets a walk with America around the garden. America writes May a letter to go with the tarts with a postscript saying, “Don’t these strawberry tarts just make you want to cry?” The palace sends the tarts and letter to May.
America soon learns she lost the bet, so she walks through the garden with Maxon. When Maxon gets a little too close, America becomes nervous and knees him in the groin. Insulted that America assumed the worst of him, he sends her back to her room. Back in her room, America discovers that Maxon had sent her three pairs of pants with a note saying he can’t deny her such a simple request but asks her to wear the pants only on Saturdays.
The next morning, America heads to breakfast convinced she will be kicked out for assaulting Maxon. At breakfast, the King shouts for the girls to head to the back of the room as the palace is being attacked by rebels. The girls panic, but America keeps calm. America looks at the Queen and then around the room and wonders how many of the girls have the strength to be Queen and endure constant attacks. Maxon comes over to check on America. After a brief, awkward exchange, America asks about the safety of her maids, which puzzles Maxon. He explains that the maids have their own place to hide.
Maxon confides in America that there are two types of rebels—ones from the North and ones from the South. He suspects the rebels attacking them now are Northerners because their attacks are tamer than the Southerners’, who actually kill. Maxon tells America not to worry. During the commotion, Marlee reveals she scored a date with Maxon. Back in her room, America finds her maid Lucy crying. She learns that Lucy, who was sold to the palace, had once been abused by a soldier during a rebel attack. America vows to protect Lucy.
After the rebel attack, the girls write letters home telling their families that they’re safe. Life in the palace returns to normal. America spends more time in her room with her maids. She learns that hundreds of servants and workers keep up the palace. She also learns that the maids and dressmakers gossip about the girls in the Selection and have chosen their top ten picks. Maxon stops by America’s room and dismisses her maids. He walks around the room, chatting and looking at America’s photos and belongings, including the penny jar, which makes America uncomfortable. Maxon suggests that since they are friends, they should have a secret signal for when they want to talk. They decide the signal will be a tug on the ear.
The next Friday, the girls get dressed up in ball gowns for a live segment for the weekly Report. Gavril, the palace spokesperson, interviews Maxon about the competition so far. Maxon reveals that things are going well but that one girl scolded him the first time they met. Gavril asks him to name the girl, but Maxon remains quiet. He reassures Gavril that he has no plans to let her go anytime soon. America finds that she likes how Maxon pokes fun of her and that he gave her the signal to talk later.
Back in her room, America dismisses her maids, knowing that Maxon will be stopping by. As she waits, she thinks about how Aspen feels more comfortable around women than Maxon. She realizes Maxon likely doesn’t have much experience dating. She picks up the penny jar and realizes how lonely she feels. Maxon comes to her room for a walk. While in the hall, they pass some girls from the competition, including Celeste, who shoots America a dirty look.
Maxon confides in America that he has little romantic experience and how embarrassing it is to date in front of his parents and the country. America consoles him, saying she truly believes he’ll find his soul mate in the competition. Maxon asks America about her situation back home. America tells him about her family. She mentions that her brother Kota is a sculptor who abandoned the family once he became a famous. America also reveals everything about Aspen, including their bitter ending when she caught him with Brenna at the parade. Hearing this, Maxon feels disgusted, gives America a hug, and promises to keep her until the end of the competition. America realizes how comfortable she feels in Maxon’s arms.
America wakes up the next morning feeling relieved, knowing how open she can be with Maxon. She realizes that being at the palace until the end of the competition will give her the time and space she needs to get over Aspen and clear her head. America heads to the Women’s Room, where the girls are gathered, talking. Marlee takes America aside to talk. They talk about Maxon. Marlee tells America about her wonderful date with Maxon a few days before. They joke about Maxon’s laugh and his muscular arms. America wonders why Maxon didn’t tell her anything about his date with Marlee when he came by. Suddenly, a contestant, Anna Farmer, slaps Celeste across the face. America never learns what happened but suspects Celeste provoked Anna, knowing Anna’s effervescent personality and how Anna knelt in prayer during the rebel attack. However, Anna is sent home for hitting Celeste.
Silvia conducts a history lesson for the girls. She covers the events of World War III, a war fought between China and the United States over the United States’ unpaid debt. China invaded and took over U.S. labor and then renamed the United States the “American State of China.” Russia also tried to invade the United States but failed. Gregory Illéa, a wealthy businessman, led the assault against Russia and became King. The new United States was named after him. America wonders why she never learned this history. Later, the girls have their photos taken with Maxon. Celeste poses seductively, while America and Maxon take a more casual photo.
Later, America learns that one girl, Janelle, has left. No one knows why for certain, but word is that she said something out of turn to Maxon. America sends Maxon a note that she is “tugging her ear.” He comes to her quickly, concerned that something is wrong, but she assures him she just wants to talk. Maxon opens up about his stresses with his father—the King won’t listen to his ideas on education for the lower castes. America tells him the lower castes need more than education. She asks him to imagine what it’s like to have to sacrifice so that your family can eat. Maxon, moved, kisses her on the forehead and says he’ll see her at dinner.
At dinner, Maxon announces that the Twos and Threes will no longer receive compensation and that the Fours and Fives will have their compensation halved. Some of the girls become extremely upset. Maxon explains that the reason for this change will be revealed on the Report tomorrow. The next night, Anne and Lucy prepare America for the evening. Normally, America wears blue dresses. However, America’s maids had a red dress made for her, knowing that the other girls are now wearing blue dresses so that they look like America, who is clearly a favorite of Maxon’s. Celeste pulls America aside and demands America take her dress. When America refuses, Celeste rips the sleeve off America’s red dress. Marlee quickly patches America’s dress.
Maxon gives a speech, remarking on how his experiences with the girls have opened his eyes. The reason he has changed their stipends is so their money can fund a food assistance program for the lower castes. The Queen appears thrilled, but the King looks emotionless. The girls then give live interviews. To everyone’s shock, America accidentally refers to the Prince by his first name. Later, Maxon arrives at her room. They talk about Aspen for a moment, and then Maxon leans in to kiss her. It’s Maxon’s first kiss, and he stumbles a bit. America, much to her own surprise, feels happy and kisses him back.
America decides to keep her kiss with Maxon a secret. Three days later, a girl named Olivia announces that she has kissed Maxon, which upsets America. The girls speculate on who else has kissed Maxon, but America remains quiet. Silvia interrupts them, announcing that the King and Queen of Swendway are about to visit. Giant tented pavilions are set up in the gardens, and Swendish soldiers start to arrive at the palace. Meanwhile, America meets the Queen’s sister, Adele. Adele has been drinking and is very brash with the girls. Some of the girls make rude comments about Adele’s manner, which makes America wonder how her family would be received if she became queen. Maxon comes by and snaps a picture of America, but she’s still annoyed over him kissing other girls. Adele takes a liking to America and confides that Maxon’s mother suffered three miscarriages. Suddenly America realizes that royalty have painful experiences just like her family. She sees Maxon again, and now softened toward him, she returns his signal to meet later.
A month passes, and twenty-two girls remain in the competition. Marlee confides in America that she doesn’t have feelings for Maxon. She feels they have nothing in common. When America tells Marlee to be honest and leave the palace, she notices that for some reason, Marlee resists the idea. America sees Maxon and remembers that she had told him not to kiss her until she knows how she feels about him. Maxon and America go to the movie theatre. As they walk arm in arm by a row of guards, America is shocked to see Aspen among them. Aspen was drafted and now works as a palace guard. America, prompted by Maxon, explains that she and Aspen know each other from back home. Maxon assigns him to guard her door, thinking she and Aspen are just friends. During her date with Maxon at the movie theatre, America seems quiet and distracted.
America hides in the Women’s Room for a few days. She’s forced to come out when Maxon throws a birthday party for Kriss, another contestant. America decides she’ll play the violin as a birthday present. The girls chat before Kriss arrives. America notices that Celeste and another girl, Bariel, are avoiding each other. Kriss arrives wearing a white gown similar to a wedding dress. The rest of the girls are wearing day dresses. America feels jealous that none of them will have a similar moment to shine as a bride as Kriss. Celeste tries to upstage the event by bragging about how she was able to fly Tessa Tamble, a famous musician, to her birthday party the year before. Celeste then insults America, saying it was better than hiring a Five for the event. America asks Celeste what she does for work. Celeste replies that she works as a model and acts surprised that America doesn’t recognize her. America begins playing violin. As she’s playing, Maxon arrives. America catches him looking at her adoringly. During the celebration, Celeste spills her red drink on Kriss’s white dress.
Maxon and America meet in the garden. America tries to convince Maxon that Celeste’s actions are all intentional, but he doesn’t believe her. She reminds him of Anna Farmer, whom she says wouldn’t have hit Celeste if she weren’t provoked. Maxon says he’d rather not talk about the others. America presses on, however, and Maxon becomes angry. He snaps at her that she should remember her place and leaves. Later at dinner, Maxon tugs his ear twice, but America doesn’t return either tug. She heads back to her room after dinner, her mind running with thoughts about why Maxon seems to be protecting Celeste. She sees Aspen at her door and tries to avoid contact. Later that night, Aspen knocks on America’s door. He asks her if she loves Maxon, and she replies, “No.” They kiss passionately. America notices how he smells different and how his body has changed. Aspen leaves after fifteen minutes. America, exhausted, wonders if she’s done something incredibly wrong or just saved herself from being at the competition any longer.
America wakes up feeling confused and frightened. She knows that she could be charged with treason and executed for kissing Aspen. Feeling guilty, she decides to skip breakfast and stay in her room with her maids. Aspen comes to her door. He asks the maids to leave, saying he has to talk about safety protocol with America. He apologizes for the fight they got in before the competition started. When America asks him about Brenna, he claims he was just helping her after she fell. Aspen reaches for America’s face when the maids burst in. Aspen tells them he was just checking if America had a fever. In the middle of the night, Anne rushes into America’s room saying they’re under attack again. Even though the maids have a separate designated place to hide, America insists they come with her. Maxon checks on America and feels pleased to see she’s protected her maids. He reveals that the more dangerous Southerners are attacking, but he asks her to not tell anyone. America returns to find her room ransacked. Silvia stops by to tell her that three girls have been sent home and that America should call her family to tell them she is safe.
America feels a growing sisterhood with the girls since they’re going through so much together. The morning after the attack, Maxon makes an announcement at breakfast: He’s sending all but six girls home. He doesn’t feel it’s right to keep anyone in the competition for whom he doesn’t have feelings with the palace becoming an increasingly dangerous place. Maxon announces the names of the girls staying: Marlee, Kriss, Natalie, Celeste, Elise, and America. After breakfast, Maxon stops by America’s room. He apologizes for yelling at her about Celeste. America sheepishly asks him why he didn’t send her home, as she wants reassurance that he’s not just keeping America around because of his promise to keep her to the end. Maxon reveals that he would have sent everyone else home as he only has feelings for her. America admits she’s still unsure of her feelings for him. He says he’ll wait for her. They signal to each other that they’d like to kiss and do.
Aspen comes to America’s room again. When he sees the jar with the penny, he thinks it’s a sign America still loves him, and he feels relieved. Aspen tries to kiss her, but America stops him. She tells him that she still loves him, but things are now more complicated. She’s honest and tells him that Maxon likes her but she can’t give Maxon a fair chance if things continue with Aspen at the palace. Aspen becomes bitter. America defends herself, saying that when Aspen dumped her in the tree house, he crushed her. He asks her if she’s choosing Maxon. America replies that for now, she’s just choosing herself. Aspen tells her he now only feels even more inspired to fight for her, and he leaves her to sleep.