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Delirium by Lauren Oliver

Delirium takes place in Portland, Maine in a near-future dystopian United States. For some reason or another, love has been declared an infectious but curable disease. The cure for love sounds similar to a lobotomy. Part of the brain is surgically altered and all those pesky feelings are taken care of, for good. Because of the disease, boys and girls are strictly segregated until after they have had the procedure and become known as “cureds.” The procedure happens at age 18 (mysteriously, there are more problems and risks if the cure is given to anyone under 18), right around the same time as “matches” are made. Depending on who you are and what your status is in society, you get assigned to a university or college, and upon graduation marry your match and begin your career.

But there are problems with the cure, and not everyone wants to be cured of love. The main protagonist’s mother was one such individual, and chose suicide instead. This decision has had a lasting effect on her daughter, Lena, short for Magdalena. At the start of the novel, Lena can’t wait to have her procedure, be matched, and get on with her life. She is very much a product of government control (those regulators only raid homes, beat the crap out of people and arrest whoever is suspected of anything really, only do all of this for society’s protection)  and swallows love as a curable disease hook, line, and sinker. Yet a chance encounter with a supposedly cured boy, Alex, is the catalyst that predictably changes everything. As summer and Lena and Alex’s relationship progress, Lena moves further and further away from her old self, her best friend, and everything she has been taught to believe. Very soon, Lena will have to make a choice that (que dramatic voice) will forever alter her future.

I bought this on my Kindle Fire the same day I got it, on Christmas, because it was on sale along with a slew of other popular YA books. I really didn’t know anything about it other than that it was a bestseller and that book two in the trilogy was coming soon. I am just wading into the YA genre, learning the ropes, as it were, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m surprised to say that I liked it (regardless of the sarcastic overtones in the summary) and am looking forward to book two, Pandemonium, which is due out February 28th. I found Lena to be, in general, a sympathetic character, and the supporting cast was fleshed out just enough to allow the reader to sympathize with them as well, for the most part. Hana’s motivations for co-ed partying were never really given and neither were Alex’s motivations for coming to Portland. I would have liked to know more, and if I had I might have cared about them more, especially Alex. He can really just be summed up as a troubled, but gorgeous and perfect male love interest (I would have been just as happy with the book if the love interest turned out to be Hana; could have made things much more interesting). Lena is neither as whiny nor as helpless as many other teen “heroines” seem to be (including Clara of Unearthly, which will be reviewed here soon), but not quite Katniss material. She’s got potential though, and that’s part of the reason I’m looking forward to Pandemonium. I’d much rather have a bunch of wanna-be Katniss characters who eventually kick ass than a bunch of wanna-be Bellas, who just want to get married and have kids with their creepy stalker-boyfriends. I’m also glad that, as of yet, Oliver hasn’t gone the typical love-triangle route. It’s A+L 4ever, so far, and I hope it stays that way.

As far as the world-building and writing goes, I can’t complain too much. Oliver’s prose is clear, Lena’s voice and motivations are believable and the near-future dystopia is fairly believable. However, I’m not sure how kids can party with loud music and alcohol on the edges of town and generally get away with it in a completely panoptic city. There’s even obvious monitoring of cell phone conversations (the characters can actually hear static and noise every time the government decides to listen in). It seems rather convenient that the party only gets broken up when Oliver needs it to for plot purposes. I do wish that there was more social commentary going on here, as there’s rich ground for it, and that’s one of the main purposes of the dystopian genre/setting. As a society we are so inundated with the concept of love that it has practically become one of the defining traits of our species. Love is part of what it means to be human, right? So how the hell is it possible for society to do a complete 180 and decide that love is a disease that’s curable? Love is an industry, an institution, an essential part of human interaction. How do we get from that to Oliver’s world? What’s the criticism she’s going for here? Is there any? (See additional notes below for more thoughts on this.)(This criticism specifically, is due in part to an essay I recently taught to my college freshman. It’s an excerpt from Laura Kipnis’s book Love’s Labours: A Polemic. Great reading, and I highly recommend it.)

On the whole, the plotting and pacing seemed pretty tight, and the characters and their motivations are believable. With a novel like this, that’s enough to make it good, but not great light reading. I give this 3.7 stars out of five and will be back for the sequel.

Additional Notes:

I’ve got two main but general complaints. First, it seems that no one is willing to deal with the destruction of society as we know it and set all of their dystopias after what ever it is that breaks society apart has happened. I’m getting annoyed by this, not only in YA fiction, but in all dystopic fiction I’ve come across recently (including, and especially, The Road). I want to see what happens, see the event. And I want an actual explanation for why the world in the story is the way it is. Can no one do this? Is no one willing or capable of offering an explanation for these messed up little worlds? Mysterious diseases abound in these dystopias, and frankly, I want to be treated with a measure of intelligence as a reader. Some one, please, explain it to us. Additionally, social criticism is an integral part of the dystopian novel, and as a dystopian novel, this book falls quite short for the lack of it, as discussed above.

The second complaint deals with the YA genre specifically. For the teen girls and boys in these novels, whatever member of the opposite sex they go for is the one. Cosmic stars align and the love interest is always described as perfect, gorgeous (with variations of adverbs such as “impossibly” or “undeniably” in front of them). I was a teen once (recently enough that I remember HS). I dated boys, had first kisses and make-out sessions (since  that’s all these characters seem to do, and none of them, not a single one, was as magical, cosmic, or perfect as they are described in these books. Reading girls go on for sometimes pages of how wonderful or unimaginably perfect the boy is is getting very annoying. I’m beginning to wonder if these books are just romance novels dressed up as something else and are setting up a generation of girls for extreme disappointment as well as priming them to become perfect consumers of society’s currently accepted ideal of love. However, I must declare that I don’t read romance novels; perhaps if I did, I would be more used to this. If anyone has good recommendations for Teen/YA books that avoid this pitfall, I’m all ears. As I said, I’m new to the genre and don’t want to judge the whole bunch based on just a few. Feel free to leave recommendations in the comments, they will be most welcome (I’ve already read the Hunger Games trilogy and it pretty much sets the bar for me).

3 comments to Delirium by Lauren Oliver

  • I’m fairly new to reading in the YA genre myself, but I can understand your frustration with relationships being depicted as perfect. One book that I absolutely love, because it is fantasy but does not even bother with the whole ‘romance’ thing for the young heroine, is Hiromi Goto’s Half World. Male characters in novels don’t always require a love interest to make the plot (or them!) complete; I find it really refreshing to see that reality portrayed for female characters too.

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