TEEN LIBRARIAN'S REVIEW:
Lauren Oliver's debut novel, "Before I Fall," was a New York Times bestseller and, at the Kinnelon Library, one of the most popular books of 2010. It's never on the shelf! I can confidently predict that Oliver's follow-up, February's "Delirium," will be an even bigger hit, as she begins her dystopian trilogy in truly remarkable fashion. "Delirium" will be compared to "The Hunger Games" — it shares an oppressive government and shocking loss of civil rights — but there's more pure romance here than in even some of the girliest of girl books. I literally cannot wait for book #2 … and the first installment hasn't even been officially released yet. Ugh!
Ok, so here's the rundown: We're in Portland, Maine at an unspecified point in the future. The government rules with an iron fist — all books, music, websites, and even ideas are chosen and regulated by the state — and infractions of the many rules are simply not tolerated. Nightly raiding parties and armed guards stoke fear and keep everyone in line. What, above all else, must be zealously guarded against? Love. That's right. Love is the ultimate danger, a disease that can render one delirious and can spread to infect an entire family. Love will drive you insane, and it is feared like the plague. When boys and girls — who are segregated in all aspects of life — turn 18, they are "cured" at government labs. All capacity for love, affection, and tenderness is eradicated and their safety from amor deliria nervosa is insured. If you remember "The Stepford Wives" (book or either film version), then you have a good idea of the dulled affects and complacent lives of the cured folks.
We meet high school senior Lena right before her graduation and 95 days prior to her designated cure time. Lena's mom was never properly cured of love for her dead father. Despite three procedures, mom still loved, danced, and laughed, and she committed suicide rather than face another cure attempt. Lena was thus orphaned as a young girl, branded as tainted and dangerous, and sent to live with her bland Aunt Carol. Lena is an interesting character; she longs for the safety and stability of the cure while recognizing an internal passion and creativity that bring both joy and immense discomfort. In fact, during her state evaluation, she relates that the pale gray of sunrise is her favorite color. This kind of individuality is a threat to Lena's own safety, for creativity and imagination are dangerously close to forbidden passion. Such deviations from the norm are cause for immediate imprisonment in the Crypts, the government's medieval-esque prison where independent thinkers literally rot away, chained and forgotten.
When Lena meets Alex, a seemingly cured boy with golden eyes and hair the color of autumn leaves, she discovers an entire subculture where freedom of expression, music, poetry, and, yes, love thrive. She learns that the Invalids who live beyond the borders, out in the Wilds, may have been right to resist all along. Maybe these "others" aren't mad and diseased after all. Maybe the Invalids are actually the normal ones. Lena's worldview is dangerously enlarged further when she falls in love with the lively, warm Alex. Loving Alex is a breathtaking plunge into sweeping, swooning glory, an entry into a world of color, music, light, and freedom. The expansiveness of love, how it opens the entire universe to you, contrasts beautifully with the strict, limiting, cramped nature of Lena's everyday existence, where so much is regulated and made taboo. (The stifling Portland summer, with little electricity and plenty of crushing heat and stickiness, is a wonderful metaphor for the oppressiveness of society. Rock on!)
The characters here are spot-on, especially Lena, who remains awkward, self-conscious, and fearful through much of the story. Her progression from adamantly trying to be "nothing special" to actively breaking rules and taking huge chances feels real every step of the way. We see her doubts and worries but also share the sheer exhilaration of her first glimpses of love and freedom. Likewise, Alex is stalwart and strong while still maintaining believable levels of frustration with Lena and terror at his private moments of rebellion. My favorite character, though, may be Lena's best friend Hana, a spoiled rich girl who plays with revolution like it's just another toy to alleviate boredom. Hana yearns to challenge things but also wants the perks of her life and the safety of her compliance. When her loyalty is finally tested, her actions felt entirely authentic to me.
As I mentioned, the descriptions here are captivating. Besides Portland's blazing heat, we get the crisp winds and sparkling skies of the Wilds, the revelry of music at a rave, the incandescence of love, the inhuman violence of raiders, and the rotting stink of the Crypts, all in exquisite detail. Oliver's writing as a whole is just as strong here as in "Before I Fall," as she builds a compelling future world with precise rules, a well-defined religion (hard science has eradicated faith) and complex systems of regimentation and punishment. Brava!
"Delirium" reads like a cross between "Fahrenheit 451" and "Romeo and Juliet." It delivers tons of suspense and thrills, wonderful language and characters, a finely delineated world, and the kind of enthralling, non-saccharine romance that is often missing from teen novels. (The scene where Alex woos Lena under a night sky with long forgotten poems, after which she finally allows herself to taste the sweetness of the word "love" in her own mind, is unforgettable.) "Delirium" is a fantastic read for high school students, and I'm sure this one will be spread like wildfire. "Delirium" releases in February 2011. Give it a try, you won't be disappointed!
PS – Check out the Publishers Weekly article on Harper Teen's search for the perfect cover for "Delirium."