Take any Gene Kelly movie and watch his feet and legs. Ignore the flash of perfect white teeth, the adorable crinkle at the corners of his eyes, the forced beam of enthusiasm. Watch the artistry of every calculated movement, the intricacy and pulsating energy nearly masked by the carefree tone, that purposeful grin that Kelly used to train your eyes toward an overflowing of pure joy, spontaneous but perfect. It was hours, years of choreography, of skill and mastery and backbreaking practice but onscreen it looks effortless, a confluence of grace and jubilance. That’s the wonder of it…that all that hard work and unimaginable proficiency is made to appear natural.
Apart from a natural desire to analyze Gene Kelly movies (Anchors Aweigh is a favorite of mine), I bring this up because I just finished my first Lauren Oliver book. There are authors whose work is redolent with beauty, with a crafting of word choice that is self-aware in its intent to steer and dazzle the reader…Sarah Addison Allen comes to mind and, more subtly, the venerable Ann Patchett whose sentences shimmer off the page as individual things of beauty. This is something different–no less lovely but more stealthy. Oliver’s writing is modest, almost unassuming in its luminosity, its pitch-perfection. It doesn’t pull you out of the story so you can stop and admire single phrases but rather weaves a seamless and consuming world around you. She doesn’t show off because she doesn’t have to. It’s only when you’re through that you can put the frame on pause, check out that footwork and go, Holy shit, that is amazing.
Delirium was my first Oliver book, though I’d heard great things about Before I Fall. It sounded depressing and that isn’t my scene so I opted out. After finishing up The Mortal Instruments i was in the market for a YA dystopian. I have read lots of those. The best of them, in my experience, are magnificent. I’m thinking of Mockingjay, of Green Angel and Green Witch by Alice Hoffman. There have been others, Divergent and even The Maze Runner, for example, that featured compelling worlds but the characters left me cold. When I braved this one I braced myself for the worst. I was so profoundly wrong in my expectations.
At the opening of the trilogy, Lena is an orphaned teen living on the grudging charity of a great aunt and eager for her “cure”. In present day Maine, as in most of the US, love has been declared a disease, deliria amor nervosa, which a mandatory brain procedure corrects at age eighteen or thereabouts. Lena’s father died and her mother committed suicide on the eve of her fourth cure (she was still able to love, dance, laugh, grieve…the procedures had failed on her). She’s seen as tainted by her mother’s disease and fears the symptoms listed in the Book of Shhh…a bastardization of the Bible corrupted to show Abraham murdering Isaac because he has deliria, Solomon slicing the baby in two. They pray the periodic table and see science and order as part of their religion. Lena is all about order and security, while her privileged friend Hana likes to rebel, attending Invalid (uncured) parties and kissing boys. Lena meets Alex, a boy from the Wilds outside the city gates, an uncured Invalid who makes her question everything she believes to be true about safety and choice and happiness. Together, they visit the Wilds where he is from and he tells her about the resistance, the people who think the cure is wrong, a form of mind control keeping people passive and subservient and free of desires. It’s a sort of numbed-out nirvana in which your memories are vague and emptied of emotion and you don’t care much about anything…there’s no yearning, no anxiety, only dreamless sleep and calm, your ‘pair’ (spouse) and job selected for you based on your evaluation of academics and personality. She falls for Alex even as she begins to see the brutality of her way of life, the regulators with clubs and dogs who raid homes, kill pets and people, crush anything that breathes of chaos.
Here’s my only problem. It took me two books to remember to pronounce it “in-VALid” instead of “INvalid” like a sick person. That’s the only nit I have to pick here.
Because the characters are so real, their longings and fears so natural. The scene where Lena runs into the cold ocean waves with Alex shows such childlike abandon, such carefree joy in a world of careful routine that it even feels like she’s passing a major milestone as she swims out to the buoy. So much of Lena’s inner world is shown through her physicality. She runs with Hana, leaps to touch a landmark statue at the end of every run, she climbs and swims and every stretch of her limbs expresses what she can’t verbalize–that she is straining against her bonds. It is rare and beautiful.
The first and arguably best book of the trilogy ends with a cliffhanger, as does the second. It is another credit to this amazing writer that I still cared about minor characters from the first book by the end of the third. The third book has dual viewpoints from Lena in the Wilds and Hana in the city as one prepares for a revolution and the other readies for her society wedding into the most politically powerful family in Portland. I welcomed Hana’s voice and almost felt it had been missing during her absence in the second book. It’s Lena’s story of course but I greatly enjoyed the counterpoint.
Conventional Lena breaks free of the cured way of life. She and Alex make a run for it. She becomes a part of the resistance. I can’t tell you more. It would be criminal to spoil any of this gorgeous trilogy for you.