DELIRIUM begins Lauren Oliver's worthy dystopian trilogy about a much-changed world where personal choice is forbidden and love is a crime. Everyone in this civilization will eventually receive the cure for the disease "amor deliria nervosa," and suspects displaying early symptoms will be arrested and face immediate surgery.
Lena Haloway is among the droves of sensible, average 17-year-olds who anticipate a cure for the disease called "love." Her nerve-wracking procedure is scheduled in several weeks; though anxious about the interview and pain, she’s looking forward to the end of social judgments. To her knowledge, she has never been infected with this disease. Her mother, however, was labeled a troublemaker after becoming delirious and finally succumbing to suicide. The cure had failed to work properly on her after her husband's death from cancer, leaving her able to continue to show love even after the procedure was forced upon her repeatedly. Eventually she chose the only way out she could.
Now under the care of their frosty and predictable aunt and uncle, Lena and her sisters are trying (unsuccessfully) to adapt to their new home and to be content. Since moving in, they've been taught to accept love as deadly, the cause of sensitive and destructive feelings that all lead to a degenerating, serious mental illness. Love's various symptoms are easily recognized and are taboo. Anyone unfortunate or foolish enough to have contrary perceptions faces imprisonment or repeating the procedure. The government advertises this approach as positive, translating to a more stable and peaceful populace and adults who enjoy lives free of stress, pain and worry. Anyone who has ever received the cure ceases to care about being desirable, having dreams, or even fitting in socially. These kinds of concerns simply become trivial once all is said and done.
Detailed information on the actual procedure is not readily available, yet presumably the alteration involves some destruction or removal of a part of the brain. Scars on the head leave permanent impressions of a painful entry and cause the uncured some concern, but post-procedurally, patients display an altered affect and steady personality. Few cases exist where this hasn't worked the first time as the procedure is, by definition, permanent. Never again do men and women feel impassioned or excited; citizens are more productive and responsible.
Venturing outside boundaries --- either structural or intellectual --- is a criminal offense in this place. Every aspect of the media, television, literature and Internet is monitored. Teenagers never kiss or date, and there are no crushes (or at least none that are acknowledged). The only ones testing boundaries are children awaiting a cure, a circumstance deemed "forgivable" because they are weak and "prone to emotional swings." Adolescents have curfews and are routinely monitored for signs of infection. On the surface, the system seems to provide an answer to some of the world's imperfections. Yet there are persistent whispers of outsiders living in the wilds just beyond the boundaries of city walls. People say they are only animals, once hunted and slaughtered in droves. To this day, no one ventures outside, and rumors remain of "invalids" living in the wilderness, apparently unstable and teeming with disease.
Following the first few chapters of DELIRIUM, readers will recognize in Lauren Oliver's particular brand of dystopia some ingenious ideas. Numerous parallels and messages exist that reflect on the boundaries and expectations we set for ourselves. There are obvious dangers in setting such rigid extremes as a means of controlling people, and yet by the end, readers will find it not at all impossible that such a society could exist. The romance, though well done, is one that will appeal mostly to teenage audiences, though the dystopian framework makes it a more versatile and challenging read for a broader audience.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on February 1, 2011