Book Learning: Delirium by Lauren Oliver

Lena Haloway is content in her safe, government-managed society. She feels (mostly) relaxed about the future in which her husband and career will be decided, and looks forward to turning 18, when she’ll be cured of deliria, a.k.a. love. She tries not to think about her mother’s suicide (her last words to Lena were a forbidden “I love you”) or the supposed “Invalid” community made up of the uncured just beyond her Portland, Maine, border. There’s no real point—she believes her government knows how to best protect its people, and should do so at any cost. But 95 days before her cure, Lena meets Alex, a confident and mysterious young man who makes her heart flutter and her skin turn red-hot. As their romance blossoms, Lena begins to doubt the intentions of those in power, and fears that her world will turn gray should she submit to the procedure. In this powerful and beautifully written novel, Lauren Oliver, the bestselling author of Before I Fall, throws readers into a tightly controlled society where options don’t exist, and shows not only the lengths one will go for a chance at freedom, but also the true meaning of sacrifice.
Overall ImpressionsIn general, I quite enjoyed Delirium. I found the main character, Lena, likable and her struggles interesting. Oliver made an interesting choice in placing Delirium in a version of Portland, Maine that is basically indistinguishable from modern day America. I tend to prefer a grittier, more futuristic dystopian landscape, but I suspect that will come in later books in the trilogy as Lena discovers more about her country's shady underbelly.  
Why I Read This Book: I read Delirium just for fun, not for research. My library got  a copy in three days after it was released so I felt very lucky to have the chance to read it. 
Recommended for Writers Researching: Young adult dystopian fiction, protagonists rebelling against a system (government, family, society), star-crossed lovers, body image in YA, protagonists coping with the loss of a parent. 


Lessons Learned:
Use visceral language. Visceral is a word that gets dropped around MFA programs like popcorn on the floor of a movie theater, but it's a great word when you unpack it. Visceral writing is that which makes the reader feel something (viscera are the organs inside your trunk: heart, lungs, stomach. Visceral writing is literally writing that makes your heart beat faster, makes your stomach clench. Good word, huh?). There were a couple of scenes in Deliriumthat made me feel really, really uncomfortable, almost on a physical level. I think there’s no higher proof that a writer is skilled than when their writing succeeds in making me feel something physically. The very first scene of the book does this, when Lena is nervously lined up with other teenagers waiting for their mysterious and frightening “evaluation”. In this scene, I felt the blinding rays of the sun and the wind-chill and the sterile white of the building, and understood exactly how Lena must have been feeling. Another particularly visceral scene was inside a massive prison, which was just about the most disgusting, horrible place imaginable. I was creeped out big time (and I love being creeped out).


Avoid superfluous language. This is my biggest complaint about Delirium. I think it could’ve been several hundred pages shorter. Even better, I think the projected trilogy could have been one book. Oliver crams so much internal dialogue into this book, I felt completely inundated at times. Moreover, I thought much of it was unnecessary. For example, frequently after one line of dialogue, we have to wade through a giant paragraph in which Lena tells us how she’s feeling, what she thinks Alex is feeling, how beautiful the sky is, what her mother was like, etc. In my experience, this kind of writing is difficult and time consuming, and some of it was genuinely breathtaking, but these internal conversations happened so often, I felt really tempted to skim and couldn't appreciate the beautiful language when it did come. It was like my experience at the Louvre—by the end of five hours walking around endless rooms full of art, your brain can’t possibly process any more, and all you want is to see the Mona Lisa and get the heck out of there. Comparing Delirium to the Louvre should tell you that there’s a great deal in the book that’s successful, but in general there was just too much stuff.

Try fictional chapter quotations. At the beginning of every chapter in Delirium there is a quotation from a made-up rulebook or law (many come from the perfectly titled “Book of Shhh”). Oliver obviously had fun inventing these fictional publications and authors, and I had fun reading them. They also serve a greater purpose of filling in backstory about how Lena’s society came to be and how the people in charge think. I would definitely consider borrowing this idea in my own writing in the future.
Avoid inauthentic swearing. About a hundred pages into Delirium, Lena drops a couple of conspicuous F-bombs on her best friend during an argument. These come fairly unprovoked and really took me out of the book. The swearing seemed extremely inauthentic given Lena’s character and the facts of her upbringing. Everything she’s seen in her entire life—TV, music, books—has been censored. She’s an extremely sheltered, obedient girl, so I found it really baffling that she can throw out F-bombs like she's Samuel L. Jackson. I don’t have a problem with swearing in YA when it fits the characters, but when it doesn’t fit, it simply counts as inauthentic voice (like if Harry Potter randomly exclaimed “Sup, ya’ll!” when walking into breakfast in the morning).
What do you think? If you’ve read Delirium, did you have any of the same reactions I did?