These days, if I tell you I read a dystopian book about a girl loving someone she’s not supposed to, you’d probably say, “Oh, another?” It’s become a common concept, but it wasn’t that long ago that it was still a reasonably fresh idea in YA literature. Lauren Oliver’s Delirium was one of the first “new” books to delve into the idea, making forbidden love and a dystopian society one and the same.
In Delirium we are introduced to Lena, a plain, presumably unremarkable teenager. She is an orphan and lives with her aunt and cousins. Lena’s reality is one where love is considered a disease. It even has a name: Deliria. People live in fear of Deliria, which the government touted as a deadly sickness. There is a “cure” for Deliria, which is administered to teenagers and prevents them from contacting the deadly love virus. Marriage and procreation still exist, but they are facilitated by the government.
We join Lena shortly before she is assessed for her future match, and she’s nervous about it. She wants to do well so she will be assigned to marry someone desirable; someone who will have a good job and maybe even a nice face. This is the extent of the emotion that goes into being assigned a mate, and this stark reality is an incredibly effective way of setting up how sad a society without love really would be. As a reader, I was both appalled and fascinated by the story almost immediately.
Lena tends to be a rule-follower, a non-questioner. She’s afraid of Deliria and the people who enforce Deliria regulations. She doesn’t question the structure of society, and though she struggles a little with the idea of being matched with a stranger, she’s generally content to follow the rules. Then she meets Alex. She meets him randomly and initially doesn’t even want to talk to him – it’s frowned upon for teenagers of the opposite sex to spend time together – but quickly finds herself wanting to break the rules for him. Alex is different, and Lena can sense it. Suddenly she’s not sure what she believes, but she doesn’t have much time before her own “cure.” Is the possibility of love worth the risk of living outside the lines of society?
There are a few very important elements to Delirium that make it work. As I mentioned, it takes very little time to set up the emotional stakes, so most readers will be sucked into the story very quickly. Lena works well as a narrator because she is obedient. It makes her incredibly trustworthy once she does start questioning what she’s been told her whole life, and it gives her a huge opportunity for growth throughout the book (and, presumably, the entire Delirium trilogy.)
The world-building is really very good. Oliver focuses on the elements that are most important – the government propaganda about Deliria, the role of the Regulators in monitoring every little thing people do, the absence of certain music, books, and art…it helps make Lena’s reality the reader’s reality as well. And even though it might initially seem like a silly concept to have a dystopian society based on the idea of outlawing love, it actually makes an awful lot of sense in the world Oliver created. If you lobotomize and condition the ability to love out of people, they don’t have the desire to fight. They aren’t passionate about anything or anyone, and they don’t really understand hope. It makes for an incredibly submissive population, perfect for the continued dominance of those in power.
But that’s the thing about love – you can’t really get rid of it. It’s human nature, and that’s something Lena grapples with throughout Delirium. The style of writing, and specifically Lena’s own internal thoughts, is very poetic. There’s lots of flowery language and metaphor and ongoing analysis on Lena’s part. As a general rule, that’s not really my thing. I prefer a more straightforward style of writing. Still, there was enough keeping my interest that I was willing to deal with a few sections of extended poetic contemplation. Not only are there plenty of readers that will appreciate Oliver’s gift with words far more than I do, there’s also a very unique ambiance that they help create. When you read Delirium, it feels a bit like an extended dream sequence, and I mean that in a good way.
As the first book in a trilogy, there isn’t necessarily a lot of action in the story given how long it is. A lot of time is spent with Lena’s thoughts, and that’s important because it helps Lena’s changing views on Deliria seem realistic and genuine. It does compromise the pacing a little, but there are little bits of excitement sprinkled throughout to keep things interesting, and one heck of a cliffhanger at the end.
With the plethora of dystopian choices in YA these days, it can be hard to weed out the good ones. Delirium is part of the reason there are so many dystopians to choose from. It put a unique spin on a universal concept and executed it well enough that readers responded strongly. And that’s the great thing about this book – even if you don’t LOVE it, there’s sure to be something in it somewhere that will elicit a strong reaction and make you think, and isn’t that the point of a good dystopian book? Delirium may not be one of my absolute favorites, but it absolutely invested me in Lena’s story and I will definitely be on board for the sequels.