Delirium is the first book in the Delirium trilogy, set in a dystopic Portland, Maine. Citizens of the United States receive a partial lobotomy at age eighteen to prevent amor deliria nervosa, the disease of love.
The book begins when the protagonist, Lena, is a mere three months away from her procedure. Because her mother suffered from deliria and committed suicide, Lena welcomes the operation and wishes for a life free of the pain love can cause. But even the best laid plans oft go awry, and Lena meets and falls in love with Alex.
Metaphor for your first love
Delirium portrays a first love that blooms in a dystopia, but it is also a metaphor for first love in our world, seen through the lens of a teenager. As a teenager, your parents, other grown-ups, and sometimes even your peers downplay or downright discount your feelings of love. They tell you it won’t last, that you’ll change, that he’ll change, that you’ll fall in love again with someone else. This may all later prove to be true, but you can’t see it; your first love is everything to you. These nonbelievers constitute the world in Delirium, and the lobotomy procedure the embodiment of what you think would happen if you do “grow up” or let the others win. Because the dystopia serves as a metaphor, any complaints that this world is less than believable miss the mark—we’re not in danger of our United States becoming this dystopia; rather, the dystopia is an expression of a teenager’s fears associated with her first love, the feeling that it’s “us against the world,” that everyone is out to deprive her of her love.
While I loved the book as a whole, perhaps as a result of the metaphor, Lena and Alex are not as specifically-defined as the characters in The Hunger Games, a book offered as comparison in the review copy blurb. Lena and Alex are only as effective as the reader allows them to be as surrogates for the reader herself and her first love.
That the dystopia serves as a metaphor doesn’t mean Oliver neglects world-building. While differences exist between the Delirium world and ours, the most significant ones are not physical but rather philosophical. Accordingly, below each chapter heading, Oliver excerpts literature from her world: an alternate Bible named “The Book of Shhh,” children’s rhymes, pamphlet literature enumerating the warning signs of deliria, and history books. This was a clever way to provide insight to this alternate reality, and also my favorite part of the book.
Be forewarned that while the book blurb reveals that Lena will fall in love, she will not do so until past the halfway mark. This doesn’t mean that the book is slow, it only means that we get a detailed view of Lena’s life. Instead of opting for an early inciting incident, Oliver decides to show us in the steady pace of life without love. Peaceful, yes, but passionless.
Why should you read this book?
Don’t let the “young adult” label discourage you from reading Delirium; you don’t need to be a young adult to appreciate its beauty. Delirium can almost be described as a literary novel marketed as young adult fare. Read this book if you want a beautiful, lyrical, and poetic expression of first love.
Benni received a review copy of this book courtesy of Harper Teen.