Welcome to the future of Portland. Guards patrol the streets. Electrified fences line the city limits, protecting residents from the dangerous wilds of Westbrook and Yarmouth while simultaneously ensuring no one can get out. Within the city, every person over 18 has been voluntarily lobotomized in an effort to eradicate that all-powerful disease, amor deliria nervosa, more commonly known as “love.”
Such is the unhappy vision of Portland in Delirium, the second young adult novel by Lauren Oliver, the bestselling author of Before I Fall. The story follows Lena Haloway, a naïve 17-year-old eagerly counting down the days until her “procedure” — the surgical craze sweeping the nation that will eradicate not only her ability to feel romantic love, but also any familial affinity. (Parents now take care of children solely out of civic duty.) But, three months before her surgery, she meets a guy — outsider Alex, with “hair like autumn leaves,” who, for reasons unknown, fancies the drab Lena — and (spoiler alert!) she “catches the disease,” i.e. falls in love. A loss of innocence follows as Lena (very) slowly realizes that Portland, and the rest of America, is pretty messed up without love.
Those of you who don’t hang out in the teen section of the library should know that a.) young adult (YA) authors are writing some of the most inventive literature of the moment, and b.) future dystopias are very in right now. So, though a “world without love” may seem like a creative concept, Delirium is actually on the lesser end of the dystopian teen-novel spectrum. Its plot and premise almost exactly mirror those of Scott Westerfeld’s superior Uglies series — just replace “lobotomize your ability to love” with “lobotomize while making you prettier.”
One imagines Oliver’s publisher urging her to ride this zeitgeist for her sophomore novel. Dystopia sells. Its current popularity makes sense — dystopias are all about discovering that your paranoia is justified and predicting the worst of all possible outcomes for contemporary society. This is terrifyingly done in the fully realized world of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, where 20 kids must fight to the death on live TV. Delirium’s loveless Portland, however, does not aim for a greater message. While Uglies has an environmental agenda and The Hunger Games is fiercely anti-war, Delirium merely states the obvious: love can be good.
The novel’s setting seems to have been chosen just so Oliver could hang in Vacationland for the summer, doing “research.” It’s a bold move to set a novel in a city you hardly know. The foreword notes, “most (if not all) of the streets, landmarks, beaches, and universities are of my own invention.” A person unacquainted with Portland might believe that. But, unfortunately for Oliver’s creative license, she does have a few readers in town, readers who know that she did not, in fact, fabricate Cumberland Avenue, where Lena lives (at roughly the address of the recently closed Cathedral School); or East End Beach, now the “most unpopular beach in Portland,” rather than the only beach in Portland; or USM (sorry, art students, MECA didn’t make it to this future, but the fake University of Portland did).
Real places are altered in ways that feel more like the result of half-assed research than genuine imagination. For example, the statue of Our Lady of Victories in Monument Square is now a man with an outstretched fist, whom Lena and her friends refer to as “The Governor.” Granted, it’s not too far of a stretch to imagine Paul LePage deciding Our Lady is too “one-sided” and having it replaced with his own likeness, cast in bronze.
Beyond the distractingly shoddy geography (East Ender Lena must trek to a store “all the way over on Munjoy Hill”) and chase-the-bandwagon premise, the plot itself is not particularly believable, even within the world of the novel. Lena endlessly sneaks around, mindlessly committing offenses punishable by death, without ever getting caught. And yet, when she and Alex finally do get caught, it is unclear how or why. Perhaps we shall find out in the inevitable sequel — alas, Delirium is the first in a trilogy. Let us hope Oliver decides to go camping in Aroostook County this winter to research the rest.
— Molly Finkelstein