Tonight, Lauren Oliver’s two YA dystopian romances are on the table. These, of course, are the critically-acclaimed DELIRIUM and its immediate sequel, PANDEMONIUM. Both feature Lena Haloway, a teenage girl from a troubled background who lives with her aunt and uncle in Portland, Maine, as her mother is unavailable. (At first, Lena believes her mother is dead, but later finds out that isn’t so.) And both feature a world that’s nearly entirely unrecognizable due to one thing: love has been outlawed, and anyone who dares to love despite societal prohibitions ends up shunned at best, incarcerated or killed at worst. This is because love is now called a disease, and goes by the name of amor deliria nervosa; it is not considered to be a benign ailment, which is why society continues to incarcerate and kill people who dare to love.
Worse yet, the world, or at least the United States, has become extremely regimented. Your mate is picked for you (obviously, if you try to pick your own mate instead, you’ve shown that you’ve contracted the “disease” and must be removed from society). Your choice of career is picked for you. Your behavior is monitored, your associations (friends, family members, etc.) are not always freely chosen, either (though friendship still exists, true, deep, lasting friendships are quite rare), and everyone in polite society wishes for one thing: the Cure, otherwise known as unnecessary brain surgery that’s equivalent to a lobotomy. A whole religion has grown up around this, and no one questions it because the older religions have all been swept away. (This is a bit of a plot problem, but I’ll get into it later.)
So, for nearly seventy years, the U.S. has existed in a twilight state. Anyone who loves is declared a criminal; the lucky ones manage to get away into “the Wilds,” areas around big cities that have been cleared of permanent habitation, while the unlucky ones get placed into mental institutions or are killed outright in the attempt to escape their terrible fate of an unnecessary lobotomy.
All of this is necessary in order to understand Lena’s problems in DELIRIUM, as she starts out knowing that her mother was not able to be Cured despite several procedures. At first, Lena doesn’t question authority or orthodoxy, which made me want to scream and throw things; ultimately, she falls in love with a guy named Alex, who tells her many things she needs, but doesn’t want, to hear. (Such as the fact that there are a number of resistance fighters out in the woods — excuse me, the Wilds — and that there are many people who disagree with the government’s official stance that everyone needs a lobotomy to protect them from themselves. At this point, I muttered, “Thank God,” and kept turning the pages.)
One of the highlights of DELIRIUM is Lena’s true and strong friendship with a young woman named Hana. These two met because they’re both runners; because their social standings are wildly different (Hana’s family is wealthy, which in this society means her TV actually gets seven channels), once they’re both Cured, they probably won’t have anything to do with one another. Yet as they’re still in high school at the beginning of this book — and as neither of them has been Cured — they still care deeply about one another and want each other to be happy.
Hana, you see, is one of those people who rebel, but only within limits. She will have a comfortable life if she submits to it, which she knows. But she still doesn’t like the idea of that comfortable life; she just doesn’t have the inner fortitude to escape considering the massive problems escaping from their dystopian society will engender.
Yet Hana has lit a fire under Lena, and that fire can only be quenched by two things: freedom, and Alex. And for the most part, I bought it, as Ms. Oliver’s storytelling ability is quite good.
But one thing really bothered me: because this is a young adult dystopia, much emphasis is placed on Lena getting to know Alex body to body, even though they do not, technically speaking, have sex. (In this society, touching one another and kissing deeply seems more illicit than merely having sex, which is something all of these societally approved couples must get around to now and again even considering they’ve all been effectively lobotomized for their own protection.) Lena, of course, goes into raptures at Alex’s physical attributes (the broadness of his manly chest, how his muscles catch the light of the sun, even musings about Alex’s shoulder blades, for pity’s sake), and of course Alex is also stricken dumb by Lena’s physical beauty even though she’s 5′ 2″ and from her own musings isn’t considered to be a raving beauty by any standard.
All of that lavish bodily description was excessive. It detracted and distracted from the main plotline, which of course is this: how do these two young lovers successfully escape their dreadful society? Or is that even possible?
Yet the road into the Wilds is perilous; will they make it out alive? (Hint, hint: at least one of them does, otherwise the second novel under review, PANDEMONIUM, wouldn’t have been written.) Even if they do, will their relationship grow, change, or . . . die?
Next, we move on to PANDEMONIUM, where Lena is now in the Wilds. Alex is not with her, so Lena has to endure the Wilds on her own. She meets up with a resistance group led by a tough young woman, Raven, and several tough young men, including Tack, who seems to be Raven’s boyfriend though this is never really explored.
After a number of travails (mostly having to do with the lack of electricity, food, and medical supplies), Lena ends up relocated to a different city and becomes involved with the influential DFA group — DFA standing for “Deliria Free America” — as Raven and Tack have come along to pretend that they’re Lena’s relations. (There’s no way Raven and Tack would be old enough to be Lena’s parents, so they’re posing instead as her Aunt and Uncle.)
Of course, there’s yet another handsome young man in Lena’s future, with this young man being the son of the head of the DFA, Julian Fineman. Julian has had seizures his entire life, and believes that if he’s allowed to have the Cure (he’s had many operations, as he’s also been stricken with some form of brain cancer), he may truly end up medically cured. Or he’ll end up dead, which to him is an acceptable risk — and because he’s a politician’s son, Julian’s been groomed to tell everyone in this overly polite society that he’s willing to die for the Cure, which of course is a strong societal message.
Then, as the plot progresses, Lena and Julian end up getting kidnapped by a hostile bunch of thugs called the Scavengers. These aren’t like the freedom fighters, who just want to live in peace and love whomever they want; instead, the Scavengers are anarchists, who glorify violence in the name of upsetting the current “natural order of things” in the U.S. Lena ends up confessing to Julian that she’s not really Cured as he thinks she is; instead, she’s part of the resistance, what Julian thinks of as “Invalids” (this concept, of course, has been done before by movies such as Gattaca), with the normal run of zombie-like sheep — er, Cured human beings — being the Valid citizens. And eventually, she manages to get the two of them free of their nasty captors, oddly enough without a single seizure from Julian to gum up the works.
But of course that’s not the end; along the way, Julian falls in love with Lena, while Lena slowly grows to like touching Julian the same way she touched Alex in the past. (Once again, there is no sex going on; the closest these two get to intimacy is when they kiss, or one of them sees the other half-naked.) Lena convinces herself that she must be in love with Julian — after all, he’s a good guy, has stood by her throughout all their trials and tribulations, so what’s not to like about that? — because she does, after all, like touching him. That she doesn’t seem to realize that touching someone and truly loving someone are not the same seems oddly naïve.
Anyway, just as Lena and Julian think they’ve gotten away scot-free into the Wilds, they end up getting recaptured. But Lena doesn’t end up incarcerated; instead, a member of the resistance gets Lena away. This member of the resistance acts oddly, too, in a way reminiscent of Lena’s long-lost mother (hint, hint), but Lena has no time for it as she must get Julian free as he’s about to be put to death. The fact that he’s a politician’s son doesn’t save him under the circumstances, nor does the fact that he and Lena nearly died several times in their escape from the brutal thugs because this is an extremely inflexible, unforgiving society. Because Lena knows that, her focus shifts toward getting Julian away; anything else will just have to wait.
So, the cliffhanger here is, does Lena save Julian, or not? And if she does, will she realize that she doesn’t really love Julian (instead, she just likes him and likes how it feels when he touches her)? And note, while one of these two questions is resolved by the end of PANDEMONIUM, there’s still a great deal left outstanding — which probably is why the third book of this trilogy, REQUIEM, is due out in 2013.
While there are many things to like about both of Oliver’s books, there are some major problems here.
- First, the “new,” zombie-like society that the DFA-types have created has only been in existence for about seventy years, which isn’t long enough to have expunged every trace of any other religion besides the state-sponsored one.
- Second, there’s way too much time spent on how gorgeous these people are; even when Lena characterizes herself in a deprecating fashion, somehow it comes off a bit overdone.
- Third, while I believed Alex was truly in love with Lena, I was never sure if Lena loved Alex or loved the idea of being in love with him; this went double for Lena’s odd relationship with Julian.
- Fourth, I do not buy that a young man like Julian, who’s had seizures all his life, can be beaten and nearly killed yet not have one, single seizure while doing his level best to escape. (Or afterward.)
- And fifth, it’s nearly impossible to imagine how any form of a society could function when everyone in polite society, effectively, has been lobotomized in order to “take the Cure for their own protection.”
So despite Oliver’s excellent storytelling abilities, the foundation on which these stories stands is a bit rocky. That’s why despite two decent YA romances set amidst a convincingly grim milieu (the back story is weaker than I’d prefer, but the ambience is superb), the better of these novels rated a B.
Bottom line: the ambience is excellent. The milieu is distasteful, appropriately dystopian. The romances work to a degree, at least considering very young, untried people are involved. But the back story did not convince.
Because of this, while I’ll still do my best to read REQUIEM when it comes out next year, it’s not likely to be at the top of my list. (Sorry.)
Grades: DELIRIUM — B, mostly because of the Lena-Hana relationship, along with the convincing Alex-Lena romance.
PANDEMONIUM — C-plus, mostly because Lena doesn’t seem to realize Julian’s just a guy — albeit a hot-looking one — and that being willing to touch someone does not necessarily mean that you love him. Not even in this society.
— reviewed by Barb