The Daily Monocle

Critical book reviews from a literary skeptic.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Delirium by Lauren Oliver

Posted by J. P. Wickwire

Tomorrow's world is one where everyone can be cured of the most deadly disease: Love. Known now as Deliria Nervosa, this sickness is said to cause hardship, mental instability, debilitation, and eventually, death.

Lena is almost eighteen—almost old enough to be cured of the Deliria forever. But just months before the final procedure, she meets a boy named Alex, and, wouldn't you know it, they fall in love. Now it's a mad race against the clock: will Lena choose to leave Alex forever and have a happy, normal life? Or will she run away with him into the wilderness and leave everything she knows behind?

Delirium by Lauren Oliver is one of the most highly-anticipated YA novels of 2011. With all of the heavy marketing, it's easy to assume the book world is bracing itself to get slammed with new fangirl hysteria. Unfortunately, Delirium fails to deliver. With poor characterization, and a plot that's practically transparent, this book has little literary signifigance. In fact, I finished Delirium for the same reason I finished Twilight: to see what all the hype was about.

Oliver's writing is typical of teen novels. Probably at a third or fourth grade level. Very easy to read; easy to lose yourself in. I finished Delirium in about two hours, despite the fact that it's nearly 450 pages long. Granted, I did skim the occasional passage because there is a lot of "fluff" language describing minute details better left to the reader's imagination.

Main character, Magdalena "Lena" Holoway, seems to have a pretty pathetic existence. Taken from a mother who was unfit to raise her as a child, she grows up in the company of her aunt and uncle, with a little sister who is mysteriously mute to everyone but Lena herself. She lives for the day she will become cured, knowing things will be "different" after the procedure.

The picture of life after the cure is one of monotony; it's supposed to be frightening to us as readers, this dystopia where people spend the rest of their lives completing the same tasks with mindless devotion. But that's what Lena's life is before the procedure anyway: just a long string of events that we don't really care about. Lena is apparently clumsy, not so pretty, doesn't get great grades, worries about everything and never breaks the rules. She describes herself as an "inbetween girl"—one who is never at any extreme. The first 50-100 pages of the book are her explanation of all the things she dislikes about herself.

Love interest Alex is, by contrast, the dream guy. Smart, funny, confidant and willing to take risks—not to mention ridiculously good looking, his role in the story ultimately amounts in Lena "finding herself". Alex doesn't have a character arc at all—he is the faultless male on a pedestal for the duration of the book. And we can hardly follow poor Lena's shallow arc.

The background characters—Lena's mother, perhaps; the government; Lena's government-selected partner—could be genuinely interesting people. But we'll never know. They were completely shoved out of the picture by two main characters whose flat stories we've read time and time again.

Honestly, the concept of love as a disease sounds corny at best. But with the right writer, and the right back story, it could become a unique dystopian experience. Unfortunately, Delirium has too little development. We know from the start what the story is going to be about; it's a formula teen romance, masquerading as dystopian fiction. Lena is going to fall for Alex. The rest is just details, and therefore, isn't worth developing. Even the subplots, subtle as they are, could've added a positive element to Delirium had been properly fleshed out.

The only truly surprising bit of Delirium is the ending (which, ironically, I rather liked). It showed that Lauren Oliver has real promise, and could craft an exciting YA novel. I loved some of the descriptions she used throughout the novel, but her best sentences were far and few between. And towards the end of the book, we really did see some development in Lena. Some of the minor characters really came alive. And I wish that I had liked the bulk of the book as much as I liked the last fifty pages. Likewise, I love the chapter intros—the excerpts of government propaganda and medical texts of the future. I wished they had been used more heavily.

Also, I have to give the artist who did the cover for Delirium props. The typographical cutout book jacket that reveals Lena's face is both brilliant and striking. (You can see pics here).

I said before that Delirium is one of the anticipated hottest books of 2011. And with the marketing it's getting, I'm sure it will be. Delirium has faithfully followed the formula for a winning YA romance, but suffers for lack of originality.

If Oliver had gone with a more complicated plot, and put her secondary characters in the spotlight, rather than the main characters, Delirium could've been a thought-provoking foray into the dangers of too much government control. Unfortunately, Delirium instead comes across as a poorly developed romp in teenage fluff.

Delirium by Lauren Oliver hits shelves on February 1st.

Author's website
Buy it on Amazon


Jojo said...

i completely disagree with almost everything said here. yes, it was obvious that Lena would fall in love with Alex, but there was much more to the book than just the typical teenage romance novels. Lauren Oliver put a twist on normal dystopian books and romance novels, and also combined the two. This book was a page turner that rightfully deserves all the hype about it. I admit, Alex could have had one or two faults to make him seem more real and relatable. The secondary characters, I would say, were more "rounded" than the main ones. There could've been a little more time spent with the secondary characters to get a better feel for them, but all in all, this was a great book with a few quirks that could've been worked out to make an amazing book.

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