In Lena Holoway’s world, people are cured at eighteen. Once a person turns eighteen, they no longer have to worry about contracting the deliria that takes hold of one’s entire being and consumes them from the inside out. The government’s eradication of love has made for a safer society, and Lena can’t wait to have the cure herself, because her life will be happy, safe, and controlled. But with something like three months before her scheduled operation, Lena falls in love, and everything changes.
There’s a problem inherent in having your debut novel be one of the best books of the year: when your second novel comes out, there are a lot of high expectations for it to deliver. If it doesn’t, the fall from grace is all the harsher. While Oliver’s second novel is still good, it doesn’t come close to touching last year’s excellent Before I Fall.
What Oliver does well is create prose that is beautiful and haunting. She has a way of setting a scene and capturing moments between characters that is breath-taking. There were several times when this reader stopped and reread sentences because they were just so pretty. So yeah, Oliver has the technical skill to tell a story. But the fact that she can write makes the weak spots in the novel all the more glaringly obvious.
The first problem that I had as a reader was the plausibility of such a society. We are told that the cure was well-received, even in its early stages. We are told that people lined up to be cured from the dangers associated with love, but we are not told why. Lena’s society is not so different from the one in which we live today: it’s a society based on similar values, and it’s one in which Christianity (Judeo-Christian) has a strong influence. One of the building blocks of the religious influence is the general concept of love, which is seen as a good thing–so what happened to make people fear it so much? There is no inciting event, no terrible tragedy that would have coerced or scared people into wanting this cure. So how did it happen?
From this pretty big question stems other ones. The world-building that Oliver engages in isn’t enough to make me feel like it’s a truly dystopian society. For as long as the novel is, very little is spent on giving us details about the world in which Lena lives. There’s a curfew for those who aren’t cured, and there’s some segregation of the sexes, but that’s pretty much all we’re given. I couldn’t help but want more insight into the daily life of Portland. The information dump at the beginning of the novel is a little clunky, and when compared to how few breadcrumbs readers are thrown in the rest of the novel, it’s unsatisfying.
Finally, there’s the issue of characterization. While Lena herself is perfectly fine as a character (maybe a little too everygirl-ish), Alex, her love interest, is never fully developed. He’s from the Wilds, and he likes poetry (though I’m not sure that he’s as smart as he thinks he is, because I think he misses the point of Romeo + Juliet), but other than that, he’s bland, bland, bland. What are his motivations? What does he want? Who is he? Why are these questions that I’m still asking after finishing a 400+ page book?
I realize that this is the beginning of a planned trilogy, and it’s possible that Oliver is simply setting the stage for the next two books. But I couldn’t help but feel that this book was overly-long for something that left me feeling as if I didn’t really know the world nor its characters. The last third of the book is the strongest when it comes to pacing, and the ending is a cliff-hanger that will ensure that readers will come back to see what happens in the next installment, but this reader will enter the next book with some reservations.
Delirium hits shelves on February 1st, 2011.
Delirium by Lauren Oliver. HarperTeen, February, 2011. ARC accepted from publisher.