You know there’s something special about a book when after turning the last page, your brain immediately begins generating a list of all the people you can’t wait to buy it for (a friend), loan it to (my sister), and recommend it for (you!). If, like roughly half the human population, you recently finished The Hunger Games trilogy and are asking yourself “what next?”… add this to your reading list. It’s exciting, it’s thought-provoking, and yes, it’s a love story. I hope high school teachers will add this to their syllabi because it’s a great discussion book and it may just end up being that one book that survives being read in school (for me it was Lord of the Flies).
Delirium is set in a future United States, but not a futuristic one. Suburbs, high school, and kids are entirely familiar; you won’t find anyone wearing fluorescent spandex jumpsuits or antennae, but the government and laws seem like that of a foreign country, if not another planet. And it’s all because of love. Amor Deliria Nervosa. A so-called “disease” that the government has brainwashed it’s citizens to blame for any and all bad things, from sadness to war. Too much passion leads to unhappiness, instability, and danger. And so marriages, careers, entire lives are completely arranged by the government. Girls and boys don’t interact and premarital sex isn’t just taboo, it’s enough to get you killed.
Lena, your average 17 year old high school student, is mere months away from receiving The Cure — a mandatory procedure that all 18 year olds undergo to rid themselves of the possibility of infection. And for her it can’t come soon enough. What we understand to be a lobotomy, Lena sees as a solution. No more pain. No more feeling. With Lean’s sordid family history (and all those darn feelings of hers), she can’t wait to have her slate wiped clean. That is, until she meets Alex. Oooer.
Like The Hunger Games, or Farenheit 451, Delirium is at once social commentary, dystopian horror story/cautionary tale, and yes, love story, too. What’s so great about Delirium, what makes it singularly worthwhile, is it’s excellent pacing and exhilarating and compelling experience of first love. The relationship between Lena and Alex is, surprisingly, one of the aspects I think adult readers will most enjoy, if reluctantly. Whether you’re a teen waiting to feel the rush of a first relationship or not, the stomach-churning, heart-racing, sweaty-palmed glory of first love is honest and truly told. That this is Lena’s first time even hanging out with a boy and breaking the law only adds excitement.
As reluctant as I was to put my copy down, I also found myself starting thoughts with “but…” a lot. I struggled to accept the culture of the novel. Not only is love equated with illness and not only are lobotomies as common as flu shots but, most difficult to imagine, the Bible has been eradicated (if only to be edited and repackaged). Now that’s an America I just can’t imagine. It wasn’t because Oliver hadn’t developed the space of the novel adequately, though. And I came to see it not as a flaw of the novel, but as mirror onto my own reading sensibilities. What I’m willing and unwilling to accept ideologically, regardless of how well or poorly an idea is written. I can’t see the plot of this novel happening. Ever. But I can’t imagine the plot of The Magician King or Neverwhere, both books I read this past year, happening either, yet I didn’t bat and eye at those stories. So what’s the difference? I think it’s the Delirium is otherwise real and recognizable. There aren’t any magic doors or secret passageways. …or rat armies (ahem). Is it not sci-fi enough for me to take everything with a grain of salt? Or is it that it’s too impossible to imagine a life without love? I have trouble imaging how a world like that of The Book Thief or The Diary of Anne Frank could exist as well, and yet… In the end, the believability (or imaginability?) of Delirium might actually be what’s most interesting about it.
The Q&A with Lauren Oliver at the back of the book is particularly welcome for her ideas, if vague, about how the America of her novel could have come to resemble something out of The Village. She suggests that this America is a result of a war torn country, where fear and desperation has lead to a complete government overhaul. And hey, this is only part one in a trilogy. There’s, hopefully, much to be revealed. Point is, should you find yourself similarly challenged to accept the world of Delirium, I predict you will also find yourself similarly wrapped up in it and looking forward to book two, which hits shelves (real and otherwise) February 28th.