What is so appealing about dystopian or post-apocalyptic romances? Perhaps for teens, more so than adults, ‘what would you do for love’ is a defining question. Love is elusive and hard enough in the real world, imagine if it happened under a fascist, totalitarian regime? Of course there are many realistic novels set in oppressed countries that deal with this exact theme, but perhaps this is too political or too real for those readers who are looking for the catharthis of a tragic romance. There are many dystopian romances out there right now, Delirium, Matched by Ally Condie, and Across the Universe by Beth Revis (which is less dystopian and more sci-fi, not that the publisher would admit that)* and I am making my way through the lot of them, starting with Delirium.
Lena is looking forward to her 18th birthday when she will undergo a procedure that will ensure that she will never become infected with amor deliria nervosa (aka, love). Lena lives in a world where love is dangerous and outlawed and the citizens of the United States (for the most part) voluntarily submit themselves to what seems to be a partial lobotomy in order to live a happy, peaceful, life. After the procedure they go to college and are matched up with a partner with whom they will marry and have children. Lena’s mother and sister were both infected, leading to suicide (Lena’s mother) and a violent struggle ending in a cure (Rachel, the sister). Lena wants nothing more than to be ordinary, happy, and unexceptional, until she meets Alex. When she discovers that Alex is an invalid, one of the people from the Wilds who live outside the electrified fence of the city, Lena is shocked and scared, but by this point it is too late- she is in love with Alex.
I picked this up because I was intrigued by the concept- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind meets Allegra Goodman’s The Other Side of the Island with a little Romeo and Juliet thrown in there for good measure. The concept is a perfect conduit for the teen theme trifecta: forbidden love, individuality, free will. What makes it so appealing is that these themes are explored in the most extreme situation. Oliver is playing on the notion that at some point in adolescence, the idea of marrying and moving to the suburbs, thereby turning into one’s parents, is a foreign and horrifying concept to many teens. Multiply that fear times ten and you have Delirium.
One of things I liked about this book is how Oliver explores all kinds of love. Although it is ultimatley Alex that Lena can’t live without, she realizes that it is also love that she feels for her best friend Hana and her cousin Gracie. Some of my favourite scenes are those between Lena and Hana, which feel bittersweet because there time is so limited. After the procedure things like friendship don’t matter, and memories from before fade away.
Each chapter opens with a quotation from propaganda or societal texts. I like this concept, which allows the reader insight into the world of the book without being too expository.Some of these sources are recognizable but have been altered to fit the goals of the new regime. For example, the Adam and Eve story from Genesis revolves around the seed of love, rather than an apple of knowledge. At times these books felt a little forced (The Book of Shhh in particular is a bit obvious), as does the concept of an entire nation voluntarily submitting to have their emotion centres destroyed, but Oliver is a compelling writer and Lena is smart and engaging and before you know it, it’s two am and you’re still reading. Delirium will be like catnip for teen girls; they will devour it and come sniffing for more. And this spring, I will have lots to offer them.
Delirium is available in hard cover from HarperCollins.
*Somewhere along the line science fiction became a dirty word in YA. Now everything is “speculative,” “dystopian,” or “post apocalyptic”. Let’s call a spade a spade, folks.