Ok, so I’ll admit that maybe I need to take a break from YA dystopian novels before I become completely jaded! Next time, something completely different, but for now let’s look at Lauren Oliver’s pessimistic vision of the future…
In the world of Delerium, tumbledown cities are fenced off in an attempt to protect city inhabitants from a deadly virus. The name of this virus? Love. Luckily, you can be vaccinated against it on your 18th birthday. The challenge is to avoid the virus until then. Lena has barely a summer to go before the procedure that will make her safe and avoid the terrible fate of her mother.
The good bits
Lena’s neighbourhood and the environment she lives in is very clearly explained. It’s easy to get a good sense of the physical geography of Portland-in-the-future and you can imagine yourself walking down the streets there. The societal make-up of the city is also described in some detail. This is good because as well as the main characters in the story, you can see how the rules Lena’s society is bound by affect their everyday lives more widely. There are also some very smart observations of group behaviour and the urge to fit in.
I should warn you that in a book about love as a virus, there is an element of the dreaded insta-love here. But, it’s not Twilight style ‘meet one day, plan marriage the next’. It’s plausibly slow burn and builds gradually over weeks rather than days. What’s more, it doesn’t feel like something that disempowers the lovers and renders them weak. But neither does it give them super powers. People are still the same people as before, they just have this additional element to their lives. This, I think, is reassuringly realistic, as I hate the message that girls should completely change who they are for the sake of romance.
The relationship between Lena and her mother is complex and interestingly played out. Although her mother doesn’t directly feature in the novel – she’s shown through memories, mainly – the strength of her presence is surprising and welcome. Traditionally mothers have often been absent, either physically or emotionally, in fantasy literature. So I’m interested to see how the trend towards mothers who appear as more than pale, fuzzy stereotypes of domestic perfection plays out. In Delerium, Lena’s relationship with her mother is almost a metaphor for the disease itself; Lena measures her own behaviour against that of her mother.
The bad bits
Despite eradicating love, the Cure seems to have little effect on darker emotions such as anger and the desire to dominate and cause pain, if Regulators, the State-endorsed vigilante groups, are anything to go by. Maybe this is deliberate on Oliver’s part to increase the sense of dystopia, but to me it seemed a bit illogical. Surely emotions and impulse control apply to these behaviours as much as they do to love, tenderness and passion?
Lena is a teenager, so we expect her to have a stronger sense of selfishness and self obsession than an adult might. However, I still think some of the supporting characters she interacts with are very harshly judged. Lena comes across as quite arrogant and dismissive of them and their concerns at times. This made it difficult for me to fully empathise with Lena. One one hand we’re being asked to identify with her experience and to cheer her on with her own experiences, but she has a free pass to rubbish the concerns of the people who care about her?
The storyline mainly concerns Lena’s immediate surroundings. So there isn’t a convincing explanation of how Portland and other cities work together to keep the wilds at bay. Perhaps Oliver is saving this for later books in the series, but I found its absence a bit distracting here.
However, my biggest problem with this novel was it’s lack of soul! Despite the book being about love, passion and sacrifice, it left me feeling a bit flat, like I didn’t quite connect with it. Maybe it’s because I’ve read so much YA dystopian literature recently. But nevertheless, I felt very much like a passive observer of events. There was never a point where I wanted to shout out loud at Lena, or as with other books, where I’ve been so carried away by the story that I’ve missed my train or looked at the clock and realised it was 3am. It’s all very measured.
An interesting read, especially for mid-age female YA readers (say, 14-16?) But don’t expect anything too lifechanging. This is well executed but sticks too close to the typical formula for any big surprises.