Let me try to explain, Lena Holoway is a seventeen year old girl being raised by her aunt and uncle. Her father died when she was a baby and her mother committed suicide when she was 6. In this dystopian Portland, Love is an infectious disease that's been cured. At the age of 18, the citizenry are all interviewed to determine what they will be and how much further education they will receive. Then, they are given a list of four potential "matches" with whom they will marry and spend their lives, right after they've completed their education. Up until the age of 18, boys and girls are kept pretty separate and the city and its environs are constantly patrolled. "The Cure" is given once they reach 18 and that keeps them from getting the amor deliria nervosa. A disease with no cure, blamed for pain and madness and war and violence, is resolved with an operation, on the brain. Sometimes, it even works Sometimes it doesn't take, sometimes it kills the person, even though it's only supposed to kill their spirit. But, it wasn't Lena's story that drove me through this book. It was the underlying idea.
A world without love? That idea absolutely horrifies me. Oliver cleverly keeps the "romantic love" part of it out of the equation at the beginning. She shows all the other kinds of love that are missing. There is no hugging, no affection, no filial love. "Cured" young adults just kind of forget their friends and families. Children don't seem like much of a concern, although, everyone does seem to have them. That was what drew me in. You started out with these basically blank slate people who just go through the motions of life. They are manipulated by a government bent on keeping notions of love and affection out of society. Books are banned, Romeo and Juliet is still required reading, but it's now subtitled A Cautionary Tale.
This book, got some terrible reviews on Goodreads and I totally get much of the criticism. The more I read of it, the more I see that dystopian fiction can be really bad, just unreadable. But, a book with a main idea that really gets me thinking, I can give a lot of leeway. Oliver writes well and she parsed out the information in a way that drew me further into the story. I think of the Kazuo Ishiguro book Never Let Me Go which, although a very good book, drove me mad with ridiculous cliffhanger endings to every chapter in the first half of the story. I found them annoying, when they were probably designed to be intriguing. Here, Oliver shows a broken world, filled with broken children. Not only are they broken, but they are constantly slapped in the face with the broken label, as they wait to be fixed with, what amounts to, some kind of lobotomy, considered to be a cure. She states that the people who've been cured make a point of keeping the scars from the operation visible. They equate numb with better, which ironically, can be considered a symptom of a broken person, not a fixed one.
Now, take this basic idea and apply it to our world. Emotions run high and people can cause as much harm as they can good. Considering that we hear so much more about the harm than we do the good, you can even see the point where such ideas could spring. We should take into consideration the intended audience for this book as well. It's clearly a YA title. These are the people whose hormones are on overdrive. They are discovering first love... and first heartbreak... and first rejection.... It's a tumultuous, emotional time and not all of them are equipped, or mature enough to handle the situations they find themselves in and the feelings they have about them. I'd be surprised if there weren't people who, at some point in their lives, may have considered this a way to end their pain and make sure they were never hurt that way again. But, anyone who has loved and lost or felt lost knows that a broken heart is just proof that you can love that much. What we take away from all of that pain is what helps shape us into who we will become in the future.
In Oliver's Portland, childhood memories are forgotten, the things that Lena really enjoys and feels defined by may be things she has zero interest in after the procedure. I'm a big fan of nostalgia. I even love being the person who passes on other people's stories. This, is an idea that profoundly bothers me. I wouldn't want to imagine a world where past loves, likes, emotional moments, joys and sorrows are all forgotten. I would not wish to live the majority of my life in a fog.
Of course, that's not all there is. There is a resistance, a rebellion of people called Sympathizers and Invalids. They live outside of the confines of the city in The Wilds. To truly keep the people in line, Invalids and The Wilds are the stuff of legend and rumor, devoutly denied by the powers that be. Citizens are kept confined in small manageable areas, kept in line by guards and rules and the Regulators. Unmanageable people get extra surgeries, put to death, or even worse, they are committed to The Crypts, a part jail - part institution where they are left to whither and die, or are tormented and tortured for as long as they can hold out.
When we meet Lena, she can't wait for her procedure, to be fixed by the cure. Then she meets a boy named Alex and "the disease" helps her see her world clearly for the first time. I must be a little out of the loop, but after reading this book and thinking how great it was that it was a standalone, like Oliver's Before I Fall, I found out that it's a trilogy. I think I'm probably cool with just stopping here. But, I'm probably going to have to look up the story about Lena's best friend, Hana. Just to see what happened to her.