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Review: Delirium by Lauren Oliver

delirium lauren oliver Review: Delirium by Lauren Oliver

Seventeen-year-old Lena lives in a world where love is taboo, where passion is anathema, where poetry and art have fallen by the wayside, and romantic tendencies must be put down at all costs. Stringent social conditioning helps guide young citizens through the complexities of these norms, while upon reaching their majority a more comprehensive solution is offered: a procedure, not so far removed from a lobotomy, that results in a total dulling of the emotions.

Lena has 90 days until her procedure. Rather than being fearful of its repercussions, she is relieved. She will no have to fear the diseased spectre of love, will no longer have to cautiously navigate the social waters, will no longer have those wistful memories of her mother, a woman who killed herself after a lifetime of illness at the hands of amor deliria nervosalove.

But although Lenas wordview has taken a long eighteen years of careful propaganda and influence to create, its shattered just as quickly when she locks eyes with a boy, and finds herself exhibiting all of the early stages of the same disease that claimed her mother. Suddenly that 90 day countdown seems rather less appealing

My thoughts

Delirium is a new contender in the somewhat glutted field of YA dystopian fiction, and is Olivers sophomore effort, following the best-selling Before I Fall. It toys with the notion that love, a disease, is the cause of civil unrest and turbulence, and that outlawing this emotion would result in a more placid and progressive society. The concept of love as a disease, carrying with it both emotional and physical side effects until the victims eventual descent into death, is an interesting one, but despite the fact that the marketing campaign around this book as highlighted the fact that its about love as a dangerous plague, as highly contagious, and crippingly terminal, this isnt at all what Delirium appears to be about. Rather, Delirium is a Romeo and Juliet-esque scenario transposed into a future society where, instead of familial responsibility and loyalty keeping our two lovers apart, the society as a whole is in charge of doing so. But while everyone loves a tale of star-crossed love (yes, even a jaded cynic like myself), the context that makes the relationship star-crossed has to be believable. And in Delirium, this just simply isnt the case.

Oliver writes beautifully, and there are moments in this book where the prose is simply a delightits refined and elegant, and written with stunning confidence. Oliver, refreshingly, writes from the 3rd person, so theres far less of the self-obsessed internal monologuing (and bizarre abundance of likes and you kn ows thats so often confused in young adult literature with voice. Lena as a character is beautifully wrought, and the degree to which she has (perhaps consciously, given her past) bought into the myth of the dangers of love is, while frustrating to an outsider, made utterly believable. But what fails to resonate with the reader is the wider anti-love context as a whole, which when placed against the near-future backdrop Oliver provides simply lacks any sort of veracity.

Dystopian classics such as Orwells chilling propaganda-filled and authoritarian 1984, John Wyndhams chilling Chrysalids (see our review), a musing on the nature and value of humanity and the Other, and'Huxley and Bradburys depictions of soulless, superficial societies depicting the possible outcomes of following the path of the cult of the individual, all work because their contexts are so believable. Each is either far-future enough that we can see how these massive social changes have taken place, or occurs in the aftermath of a precipitating event such as war or a natural disaster. In order for these sorts of societies to come into being, there needs to be some sort of catalyst, or a very long slippery slope down which a society unwitting slides until its too late to clamber back up again.

But Delirium lacks this essential context. In fact, were given a world that feels relatively near future, and which isnt so different from our own. While were given a sense of resource scarcity and societal inequality (a nod to Brave New World, where individuals are classed according to their potential?), theres no sense of any sort of precipitating event, or any sense of longer-term downward spiral. And really, given the subject matter, these are essential. After all, outlawing love is a pretty odd act, and seems rather less likely than outlawing something like, oh, let me see, hatred? Delirium takes place in what feels to be a sort of Christian society, and given that love is one of the underlying tenets of this religion (and indeed most religions), it seems odd to suddenly renege on all of this. Surely even the most crazily secular of societies wouldnt do such a thing?'So while were given an adequate'what of the situation, were not really given a plausible reason for why. What exactly is the problem with love? Why is it something to be feared so? Were given the odd line or two about the dangerous passion it engenders, and a whole bunch of ancient texts reworked to show that Love is Bad, but theres no real reason given for this utterly bizarre anti-love act that couldnt be torn down by a drunken first year law student in their first mooting competition.

Because of this, its hard to accept the authoritarian and brutal ways in which the state puts down behaviour that could be counted as in favour of or expediting love. Moreover, the ways in which this behaviour is manifest seems so arbitrary and conflicting that its hard to take seriously. We have things such as curfews, mass censorship, segregation of the sexes, and that whole lobotomy thing, all of which constantly hover menacingly in the background, but then on the other hand Lena is allowed such freedoms as being able to go running unchaperoned or to work in her uncles shopboth situations that could surely result in her coming face to face with this terrible love business. While its a chilling concept on a superficial level, any attempt to analyse it results in any notional cohesion unravelling pretty quickly.

Another thing that I struggled to accept was the way in which the medical process designed to rid individuals of any sort of loving proclivities worked. Surely a quick zap to the frontal lobe would do rather a lot more than destroy ones ability to love or feel passion? How exactly does one isolate the love bit in our grey matter, anyway? And why are people accepting of this treatment? While emotional neutering works in some of the societies in the books mentioned above (and has also been addressed quite well in a number of recent films and novels, such as Equilibrium or some of Philip K Dicks work), it just doesnt seem to gel here.

Still, despite my harping on about the lack of believability of Olivers world as a whole, she does do a good job at the character level, and there are a number of genuinely moving moments that really do serve to bump this book up a notch or two in my opinion. Lenas challenging relationship with Hana, and the way the two in a sense become each other as the novel progresses, is beautifully drawn, and the anguish the two face at the inevitable loss of their friendshipwhether as a result of the anti-love medical procedure or as a result of Lenas dissenting behaviouris quite gut-wrenching. Moreoever, the circumstances of Lenas family and its individual members is also quite poignant: Oliver alludes, sometimes subtly and sometimes less so, to both their unhappiness and lack of ability to change their circumstances, and this is quite fascinating to read. One character who fails to ring true to me, however, is Lenas beau, Alex, with whom she promptly falls in love after that fateful moment at a masquerade ball testing session. Alex is a nice guy, which is always a relief given the recent proliferation of domineering suitors in YA fiction, but hes dishwater dull (and whats with YA heroes reciting poetry to their lovers? Stop, please!) and feels less of a character than a useful plot contrivance. Its a shame, given that Lenas character is so utterly convincing, and I cant help but feel that if this book had skipped the whole just-add-water love affair thing and focused more on what could be a potentially fascinating dystopian context it would have been a stronger read on the whole.


Delirium is a zippy YA read that has had reviewers and readers in a spin, and will no doubt spawn a huge following of rabid fans. However, while its well done on the prose and character levels, the central premise needs a much stronger contextual grounding in order to be believable as a true work of dystopian fiction.

Rating: star Review: Delirium by Lauren Oliverstar Review: Delirium by Lauren Oliverhalfstar Review: Delirium by Lauren Oliverblankstar Review: Delirium by Lauren Oliverblankstar Review: Delirium by Lauren Oliver (not bad)

With thanks to Hachette Australia for the review copy

Purchase Delirium from Amazon | Book Depository UK | Book Depository USA

Other books by Lauren Oliver:

before i fall oliver Review: Delirium by Lauren Oliver

white 15 Review: Delirium by Lauren OliverSend to Kindle


  1. This has been really popular around the book blogs thanks for your considered opinion. Im a bit leary of YA fiction in this genre because there seems to be so much promotion of them its hard to get a balanced review

  2. Stephanie /

    Thanks for your kind words, Shelley Rae. I checked out a few reviews, and they seem quite varied, which is interestinga lot of this is superb and a lot of this falls short. I do love a good dystopian read, but given that theres so much exemplary stuff out there, new dystopian novels really do need to go that extra step.

  3. Ill admit, I really liked this one. I thought Oliver built Lenas world so well that I didnt need to ask about what happened to bring it about. When I did wonder, I decided that I couldnt know more than Lena knew. All she knows about the procedure, for instance, is that they do something that leaves a scar, leaving people changed but safe from the disease of love. Thats enough for her; she accepts it as part of her world. If shes telling the story, it would be hard for us to know more than she does. I do agree that the history as to why the society exists as it does is a bit sketchy, but as I saidit didnt bother me!

    Thanks for this really thoughtful and in-depth consideration of Delirium. It got me thinking, even if the conclusions I reached dont quite line up with yours!

    • Stephanie /

      My pleasure, Erin. Its fascinating to your take on this one, and I can see what youre saying about the narrow point of view requiring the background behind the anti-love rule to be pared back in such a way. It is true that there are so many cultural norms whose history we cant easily trace back, or that we wouldnt be able to explain if askedthe major issue in this one for me was that it seemed to have come about so quickly that I felt there should be far more questioning of and opposition to this situation. :)

      Sounds like this one might back a good book club discussion read!

  4. Thanks for your honest review. It sounds like you liked it, but had qualms as well. Ive heard such glowing reviews of it, that its good to hear about some of the problems you saw. Im not a big dystopian fan to begin with, so I often feel less informed than people who have read a lot of them. Im always curious though about the message and the ground they stand on for their ideas. Thanks for sharing so I have a heads up!

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks for your kind comment, Becky. I did enjoy this oneits a very fast read that is beautifully paced, and is very hard to put downbut it was the world-building that pulled back my enjoyment a few notches. I can definitely see how it would be received so popularly by bloggers and readers on the whole, though. :)

  5. I havent read the book and am not into dystopian YA, but I wonder if creating a fictional society where love is taboo serves to make readers think about the way love functions in our own society: why it is important to love, why art and poetry are important. Just an idle thought.

  6. Stephanie /

    Interesting, point Violet. I think the novel definitely does force a rumination on love, but poetry and literature arent really addressed in any significant way (although there is some mention of sanitised music, which rather made me think of Kurt Vonneguts Player Piano) :)

  7. True, Stephanie, Lenas time felt very near our own with no explanation as to how it got that way. I guess I was reading it more as an alternate world, kind of, than as the near future of our own. Except that I never really explicitly thought about it until this little discussion of ours :-)

    I agree, this book would be really interesting for a book group discussion!

  8. Stephanie /

    Hmm, perhaps if Id read it as an alternative history I mightnt have had the same issues with it. Good point, Erin. I guess I was assuming that they were coming from a US similar to the one in our world (puritanical background, Christian orientation, industrialised, globalised, etc), but maybe that wasnt the case at all. Itll be interesting to see what comes out in the later books! :)

  9. Grace /

    I happen to have fallen in love with this book; its amazing. I just finished reading it about a half an hour ago, and I honestly feel like crying. The ending is so beautiful, I was so into the book I couldnt believe what was happening. I was never left bored, either. I just hope that maybe a second book of it releases sometime soon, and this book has defiently inspired me to write a book of my own! :]

    • Stephanie /

      Hi Grace,

      Thanks for your lovely comment. Im glad to hear that you enjoyed this and that you got so much out of it. From the ending Im pretty sure that theres a sequel on the way, so you should hopefully get your wish. :)

      Thanks again for stopping by!


  10. Jocelyn /

    Im new to dystopian novels but ever since the hunger games I have been completely in love with them! I cant wait to get my hands on this book <3 I just finished Divergent by Veronica Roth and can officially say Im head over heels in love with dystopias. Thanks for you review!

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks for visiting Jocelyn! I enjoyed the Hunger Games, too, and glad you did. Some other great dystopian YAs Ive read recently include Birthmarked by Caragh OBrien and If I Could Fly by Jill Hucklesby. There are some great classics out there, too. :)

      I havent read Divergent, but Ill definitely keep an eye out for it!

  11. Wow, what a great review! Ive had my eye on this book for a little while and its great to hear an honest opinion about the subject matter, thanks!

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks for your lovely words, Angelya! I know Im a dissenting voice with this one, but it just didnt quite ring true for me.

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