In the future, love is a disease. It is also an illegal emotion. Whenever a person turns 18, they are forced to undergo an operation that completely removes their ability to love, and then they are paired with the husband or wife determined for them by a government interview. Seventeen-year-old Lena is totally okay with this, even excited about it. She has heard the stories of people of the past, sufferers of so-called Amor Deliria Nervosa. She knows of the desires and pains that accompany falling in love, and she can’t wait for her 18th birthday to arrive so she can have the romantic part of her brain lopped out, thus eliminating her worries about contracting the Deliria. Shortly before her much-anticipated birthday, though, the unthinkable happens. She meets a boy, Alex. She falls in love.
This is the basic premise of Delirium by Lauren Oliver, a novel that combines two of today’s most popular genres—the romance and dystopian novel. It’s an odd combination, one that will enthrall some readers and turn others off completely, but for readers who are burned out on Twilight or similar romances or are looking for a light dystopia, it’s an okay read. In fact, as I read Delirium, I frequently found myself comparing it to Twilight. Though Delirium’s similarly Northwestern setting of Portland doesn’t have a hidden coven of vampires (or, really, any supernatural elements), the intrigue surrounding Lena’s interest in Alex is similar to Bella’s manic curiosity toward Edward. Delirium also moves at the same drawn-out, moodily detailed pace that Twilight does, which means that readers who liked the romantic sullenness of Twilight will probably enjoy this romance in a world gone wrong.
Readers who prefer dystopia before romance, however, might have a harder time with it. Delirium is not The Hunger Games by a long shot, though there are some mildly suspenseful moments involving raids on (gasp!) co-ed parties and some exciting chase scenes near the end. That doesn’t mean that the world Oliver has created isn’t intriguing, though. In fact, the world itself is what kept me reading. Looping through my head was the constant question: “How does a world like this happen?” How does an entire society become so disillusioned with love—not only romantic love, but even familial love—that it is willing to sacrifice simple happiness to get rid of it?
This question also reveals one of the book’s flaws, though, which is that it requires considerable suspension of disbelief. While it’s reasonable to suggest that a strict gender-segregated society could exist in the US (as it does in the book), and that individuals might opt to live without pursuing romantic attachment, it’s hard to picture a society as extreme as Delirium’s, in which most people want to eradicate love at the expense of all other positive emotions or relationships. Even a simple action like singing a lullaby to a baby can indicate love in this society and result in the singer being arrested for being a “sympathizer.” It’s not only ridiculous; it’s hard to imagine a government that would care enough to enforce such picky criteria.
Also, even though I was fascinated by Lena’s initial distaste for all things affectionate—what normal teenager doesn’t want to fall in love, after all?—once she met Alex, my interest began to fade. Alex himself is only generically likable, and though his backstory is somewhat interesting, his interactions with Lena are not especially engaging. I began to wonder early on whether Lena was really in love with him, or whether she was in love with being in love, since most of the book’s romantic details focus on her thoughts about love and its complications, rather than Alex himself. I was more interested in her relationship with her best friend Hana, which, though not romantic in the least, was easily the strongest, most positive relationship in the book. This was the relationship that I didn’t want to see ruined by both girls’ 18th-birthday operations. Lena is worried about it, too; after all, they’ve been friends since their earliest days. With this as a contrast, it irritated me to see Lena so caught up in this boy—or this love—that she’d only known briefly. But admittedly, this makes sense for her character. Since she has been repelled by the idea of love her entire life, it makes sense that she would be fascinated by it now that she’s found a reason to love. It doesn’t make sense for readers, though. We don’t have her loveless background to relate to; we need a person to love, not just an abstract feeling. For readers who are not reading for romance, this is one of the book’s biggest failings. Another is that the dystopian elements are never really explained; they’re just there.
Because of that, romance readers are more likely to enjoy Delirium than readers who know they prefer the harsher settings of other dystopian novels. For readers who have not read many dystopian novels, though, it’s a good starting point. If you like Delirium, you may also like Lois Lowry’s classic The Giver, which follows some similar themes.