Thursday, March 24, 2011

Book Review: Delirium by Lauren Oliver

I've been looking forward to reading Delirium ever since I read Before I Fall, which is written by the same author. The two books turned out to be very different; Delirium is a dystopian novel set in the possibly-distant, possibly-sooner-than-we-realize future, while Before I Fall takes place in the present day. While both feature teenage girls as protagonists, the characters and their struggles are dramatically different, as are the love stories that figure prominently in the respective novels' plots. Both books, however, are about freedom. Before I Fall is about the freedom to be who you are and the importance of treating others well, while Delirium is about having the freedom to feel.

Imagine a world in which there is no love or hate, and love has been pathologized into a disease: Amor deliria nervosa, symptoms of which include the expected fevers and sweaty palms as well as delusions, fits, and even death. The United States, in an effort to rid its population of the disease, has closed its borders, ordered citizens into cities, and either killed or imprisoned those who refused to undergo the mysterious Cure (as well as those for whom the Cure does not "take," and continue to experience the deliria anyway).

Lena, the seventeen-year-old protagonist, is only a few months away from her Cure, which is to take place on her eighteenth birthday, at the outset of the novel, and she eagerly looks forward to it. Her entire life, she has been emotionally and socially haunted by her mother's suicide, and believes that the Cure will ensure that she will be safe-- safe from her mother's untimely fate, and safe from the judgment of those who believe that her mother's actions have contaminated her. The Cure, as it turns out, (when it works, which isn't always) renders those who have had it immune to passion: they are incapable of love and hate, and drift through life in a contented haze. Lena desperately wants this, believing it will fix her conflicted feelings regarding her mother and enable her to lead a happy, normal life.

Lena's careful, safe world begins to fall apart on the day of her evaluation, in which she was to be interviewed by the scientists and bureaucrats responsible for both administering the Cure, assigning her to her higher educational path, and selecting her husband. Needless to say, they are all too aware of Lena's familial background, and the pressure both her family and Lena herself place on her is extreme. Her aunt drills her for hours, so that Lena will answer the questions as normally and inoffensively as possible. During the evaluation (which Lena is in the process of flubbing), a herd of painted cows stampedes through the facility. In the chaos, Lena sees a young man on a walkway above, laughing at the spectacle. She later encounters him while on a run with her best friend, Hana, and he confirms that the incident was the work of Invalids, un-Cured people who live outside of the electrical walls of the city and its laws. Soon, Lena has to decide between learning the dangerous truth and living out the rest of her life in a sanitized, safe lie, and must deal with the ramifications of her choice.

Delirium was really, really good. Oliver's knack for characterization is evident here as well as in Before I Fall. Even though I initially found Lena to be an irritating fraidy-cat, I grew to sympathize and love her over the course of the narrative, and enjoyed the way in which her character and her relationships with her family, Hana, and Alex played out. Beyond that, I found the idea of a world in which love is considered a serious disease to be intriguing, and especially appreciated Alex's take on things: that love and hate are not the most dangerous feelings: indifference is, as that is what causes people to lose their humanity and to treat one another terribly. Oliver does an excellent job depicting the callous brutality that underpins the safety of Lena's world.

Obviously, I'm looking forward to the sequel. 4 out of 5 stars.

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