“They say that in the old days, love drove people to madness. That’s bad enough. The Book of Shhh also tells stories of those who died because of love lost or never found, which is what terrifies me the most.
The deadliest of all deadly things: It kills you both when you have it and when you don’t.”
As YA dystopian fiction, Delirium unavoidably invites comparison with other trilogies in the genre, most notably Matched, with which it shares a lot of worldbuilding DNA. While a reader with any experience in the genre (and maybe even without it) will be able to predict all the major story beats from the beginning, what sets Delirium apart is less the story and more the way the story is told. Yes, we’re dealing with the first of a trilogy, told in first person by a bland, self-insert passive protagonist. Don’t let that dissuade you, though – there’s much about this book to recommend it.
Take a 1990s TV movie adaption of Romeo and Juliet set in an American high school, cross-breed it with The Giver, and set it to a Taylor Swift soundtrack. And I mean all of those in the best and worst ways.
What I appreciated
There’s some beautiful writing in this book. Oliver wraps this somewhat convoluted plot in a silky, serious style that lets the reader get swept away without worrying about the machinery underneath the poetry.
While I wasn’t particularly interested in Lena as a character, I did find myself invested in her inner conflict between the euphoria of first love and her terror at watching the symptoms of deadly disease invade her body and mind. A successful first-person telling of young love needs to elevate the relationship to uncalled-for levels of importance without making the characters seem like absolute idiots. The high stakes of love in Lena’s world are the perfect setting for this. Lena’s hyper-awareness of her own emotional and physical reactions makes me think of Eleanor and Park with life-or-death consequences.
While some aspects of Delirium’s alternative society felt underdeveloped, Oliver put care into the fabrication of the body of literature, art, and scholarship that emerged in a society that declared love a disease. What might children’s songs or medical textbooks say about the delirium? What story does this society tell itself about its own history? Oliver answers these questions with pithy, poetic epigraphs and short glimpses of the world beyond Lena’s life. Oliver keeps her attention on the basic premise, “society cures the disease of love,” which remains the most interesting element of the story to me.
While this is a spoiler-free review, a quick search of other reviews will reveal polarizing reactions to the ending. Personally, I am strongly pro. To me, the ending redeems many of the book’s potential failings and made me more excited for the second installment than I would have thought.
What bothered me
The book is about 400 pages and doesn’t really have any business being more than half that. There’s nothing wrong with a short, simple story; things get boring when you take something short and simple and stretch it out until the pacing becomes glacial and a full third of the scenes add nothing to the story. That said, even with the padding, this is a quick read (especially once you catch on to what can basically be skimmed).
There’s no way around the thinness of the characters. Lena, her love interest, her best friend, and her family would probably fall over in a strong breeze. While I enjoyed being in Lena’s mind to experience what was happening to her, I finished the book with little idea of who she was as a person. I was rooting for her to discover love, but not to be in love with Alex in particular. Probably the most interesting character is the dead mother.
There’s also a scene with a stampede of cows that made absolutely no sense to me.
This book should generally be appropriate for the Y-er end of the YA age spectrum. Lots of discussion of butterflies in the stomach, little attention to sexuality. Very accessible writing style.
I just learned the book was adapted for a 2014 TV movie starring Emma Roberts. Who knew.