Read this book for the 26 book reading challenge I started a couple of years ago and am still chugging through for the category “a book set in summer.” The whole novel takes place in Portland, Maine in the summer before a life-changing event takes place in the main character’s life.
Quick summary that includes spoilers, so read at your own risk. The premise is that this takes place in a future in which the disease of amor deliria nervosa has been eradicated through a procedure that U.S. citizens undergo when they come of age. So, a special kind of surgery targets the part of the brain that processes and let’s you express emotions related to love.
Lena is a typical teenage girl who enjoys running with her best friend Hannah and can’t wait to undergo the procedure and escape her past: being the daughter of the woman who committed suicide due to falling ill with the delirium. Lena follows the rules and wants to fit into her society until, wait for it, she meets a boy named Alex.
Overall, the idea of this society is interesting and captivating, but I think I’m definitely well past my young adult years, because the nauseating young love oh my god I can’t live without you after having just met you and I hardly know you trope makes me roll my eyes so hard. The whole story and character’s development hinges on this stereotype, but my biggest problem with it is how heteronormative it is.
The point of the procedure is to eradicate falling in love, but everything rides on the idea that only boys and girls fall in love with each other. The society even has rules that doesn’t allow boys and girls to have too much interaction prior to their procedures, to reduce the possibility of falling ill. At this point, I’m over books and stories that perpetuate the idea that only heterosexuals fall in love and no other kind of people even exist. It’s 2017. Get with the times please.
However, maybe it was my mind trying to read too much into it, but I felt a sort of queer element from Hannah. They were best friends, and the way she acts toward Lena and wanting her to break free from society’s restraints always felt like Hannah trying to push her friend to the realization of how she really felt about Lena. In the end, when Lena rebels for Alex, and Lena asks her best friend to run away with them, Hannah let’s her go and says she’s not actually brave enough. That whole relationship felt to me like Hannah was always in love with Lena, but Lena never realized it, and Hannah didn’t want to ruin things for her.
I appreciated the strong use of religion to establish this totalitarian government’s rhetoric behind the eradication of love. That is something that actually translates into real-life as is often seen in the U.S.’s politics with a blurred line between Church and State. Each chapter opens with a passage from the Book of Shhh, which is sort of like their constitution and bible. If the chapter doesn’t open with a passage from that book, it opens with lines from some kind of banned literature such as Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, or other poetry and novels that elevate the concept of love.
Another relevant element in this story is how police brutality is seen through Lena’s eyes. With her conditioning, she at first believes the law enforcement is there to protect the country’s citizens from themselves. When she falls to the deliria though and goes through each act of rebellion and becomes a victim of the patrollers, she finds they actually enjoy using extreme force and violence to bring criminals to justice. Lena’s description of her encounter with the police shows her thinking that the cure doesn’t eradicate all emotions, because hate and violence are still prevalent. This leads to the revelation that maybe love isn’t the problem. Love isn’t what makes people go mad and do terrible, chaotic and destructive things. That’s just people.
I’ll end this summary and review with a technical and structural choice the writer made and I think did well. The whole book is written in present tense, which is actually harder than it sounds. There’s a reason most books are written in past tense (in English at least). It’s just one of those things that feels and comes more naturally to our language. Oliver’s choice to write third person limited in present tense makes for an engaging story that brings the audience into the moment and feel like we know what Lena knows. It’s a structure that helps you feel the urgency of every situation, and it’s probably what kept me reading the whole book and look past the love story that I found cliche.
All in all, the book entertains and keeps you intrigued, but I didn’t feel a particular investment in any of the characters, and I don’t feel compelled to pick up the next installment.