Delirium, written by Lauren Oliver, 441 pp, RL TEEN
DELIRIUM is now in paperback!
I am sure readers will tear through Lauren Oliver's second novel, Delirium the first time they read it, anxious to see how the story of Lena unfolds. But, if you can slow yourself down or if you decide to read it a second time (which I suspect you will) not only will you be able to take more notice of Oliver's beautiful writing, but you will also find yourself contemplating the fascinating conceit of this utopian/dystopian novel more intensely. Although I have not reviewed it here, I am (like millions of others) a huge fan of Suzanne Collins' amazing Hunger Games Trilogy, having read the advance copy that was passed from bookseller to bookseller at the store where I work in the months before it was published in October of 2008. Collins' trilogy has definitely set the bar very high for the spate of teen books with a dystopian setting that have come since (and the handful that came before like Scott Westerfeld's intriguing Uglies quartet that just got a cover make-over) and I think that Oliver's book definitely meets it. Like Collins, Oliver has created a very strong narrative voice in her main character, given her complex thoughts and feelings and presented her with a daunting force to overcome.
Every chapter in Delirium begins with a quote from a government or educational text. Chapter one sets the tone with, "The most dangerous sicknesses are the ones that make us believe we are well. -Proverb 42, The Book of Shhh (The Safety, Health, and Happiness Handbook.)" Main character Lena picks up the thread, telling us, "It has been sixty-four years since the president and the Consortium identified love as a disease, and forty-three since the scientists perfected a cure. Everyone else in my family has had the procedure already. My older sister, Rachel, has been disease free for nine years now. She's been safe from love for so long, she says she can't even remember its symptoms. I'm scheduled to have my procedure in exactly ninety-five days, on September 3. My birthday." On the surface, the idea that love is a disease might seem gimmicky or "done," but I assure you, what Lauren Oliver brings to this concept is both thought provoking and exhilarating and the society that she builds around this belief is fascinating and frightening, along the lines of Lois Lowry's 1994 Newbery winner and standard bearer for all great dystopian young adult literature, The Giver.
Throughout the course of the book, observations that Lena makes and stories that she shares of other citizens who have been ravaged by the disease make a pretty good case for eradicating it, much like polio or whooping cough have been eradicated, which also means, not entirely gone. When she thinks about love and the vulnerability that it requires she remembers that "Everyone you trust, everyone you think you can count on, will eventually disappoint you. When left to their own devices, people lie, keep secrets and change and disappear." Although she is not yet eighteen, Lena has some experience with this. Her father died when she was young and her mother was left to raise her and her sister Rachel, who is nine years older. When Lena was six her mother committed suicide. A passionate woman, Lena's mother was seemingly incurable. She had gone under the knife three times, the last time without anesthesia, and she still wore a memento of her husband's on a chain under her clothes. Lena has memories of her mother shutting the blinds and stuffing the cracks in the doors so that she and her daughters could listen to music and have dance parties. She remembers her mother showing her tenderness when she fell and hurt herself, only to stop when another mother noticed and expressed her disapproval. Yet, Lena also has memories of her mother crying through the night, alone in her bed. As Lena realizes after experiencing it, love is "the deadliest of all deadly things: It kills you both when you have it, and when you do not. Love: It will kill you and save you, both."
With this premise, Oliver plays with the interesting idea that at least two generations of people have grown up in a community where the expression of and feelings of love are non-existent, on the whole, among people over the age of eighteen. Lena has never seen two adults share a passionate kiss, never heard a love song and never seen a romantic movie. In school, Romeo and Juliet is read as a cautionary tale. She is among the rare children to have known caring and compassion from her mother when she was hurt and in pain, although the stare and scowl of an onlooker put a stop to that, in public anyway. Because of the torment she watched her mother suffer because of her incurable love of her father, as well her older sister, who was infected before she turned eighteen and had the operation, Lena views the operation as a salvation. For Lena the operation is not just about avoiding the disease, it is about wiping clear a troubled past, a troubled family history. The latin words, "Ex rememdium salvae," or, "From the cure, salvation" are printed on all American currency and have meaning for Lena. She says, "the lucky ones, will get the chance to be reborn: newer, fresher, better. Healed and whole and perfect again, like a misshapen slab of iron that comes out of the fire glowing, glittering, razor sharp. That is all I want - all I have ever wanted. That is the promise of the cure." As much as she is looking forward to the cure, Lena is also fleeing from her past and the whispers and shunning she has suffered because the spread of deliria nervosa in her family, and not just her immediate family. Lena's Aunt Carol has raised her and her sister and is raising her own grandchildren after their father, her son-in-law, was suspected of being a sympathizer who disappeared before his trial could begin. His wife, Carol's daughter, dropped dead from a heart attack after being indicted in his place a few months later. The fallout from this has left Carol's youngest granddaughter, Grace, mute. Because of what she has seen and lived, Lena says, "I know the past will drag you backward and down, have you snatching at whispers of wind and the gibberish of trees rubbing together, trying to decipher some code, trying to piece together what was broken. It's hopeless. The past is nothing but a weight. It will build inside of you like a stone." But, as she approaches her eighteenth birthday Lena will find that the past is very much alive and demanding attention.
I was so consumed by Delirium and marked so many passages from the book that stood out and made me think that I could write many more paragraphs. However, I will stop here and end with some of the fine writing that Oliver does when describing the feeling of love and being loved. Towards the end of the book Lena shares this experience, "We stand there for one more moment, looking at each other, and in that instant I feel our connection so strongly it's as though it achieves physical existence, becomes a hand all around us, cupping us together, protecting us. This is what people are always talking about when they talk about God: this feeling, of being held and understood and protected. Feeling this way seems about as close to saying a prayer as you could get." Delirium is a full meal. I got to the end of the book and felt very satisfied, excited in fact. I didn't research the book at all before I read it so I had no idea if it was a stand-alone or the first in the series. When I finished the last page I smiled to myself, thrilled with what I thought was a bittersweet conclusion to an amazing story. However, just like Lowry's The Giver, the ending is somewhat ambiguous and can be interpreted in more than one way and I feel like a chump for thinking that the love interest would actually die in a blaze of glory. That said, I am also really happy that there is more of Lena's story to tell and pleased to know that Delirium is book one in a trilogy. The second and third books are Pandemonium and Requiem and the titles were suggested by readers of Oliver's blog in a contest she hosted last year. How cool is that?
Also, Delirium, as well as Oliver's first book, Before I Fall, which I have been dying to read since it came out, have both been optioned and are being made into movies!