Book Review: Wither by Lauren DeStefano
In our brave new future, DNA engineering has resulted in a terrible genetic flaw. Women die at the age of 20, men at 25. Young girls are being abducted and forced to breed in a desperate attempt to keep humanity ahead of the disease that threatens to eradicate it.
16-year-old Rhine Ellery is kidnapped and sold as a bride to Linden, a rich young man with a dying wife. Even though he is kind to her, Rhine is desperate to escape her guilded cage — and Linden’s cruel father. With the help of Gabriel, a servant she is growing desperately attracted to, Rhine attempts to break free, in what little time she has left.
How to review Wither. Well, this book got me out of a bit of a reading slump, I wanted something light, easy to get into and entertaining, which is exactly what I got. I read Wither within a single evening cover to cover and enjoyed it — but there isn’t any real substance to it.
With all the hype surrounding this book, I was hoping for something really special. Unfortunately Wither, in my opinion, isn’t one of the better dystopian YA’s to hit the shelves recently. There was no passion, no intensity, no suspense. The world building is flimsy, which might not be an issue for some readers, but I also found the majority of the characters lacking (aside from Jenna, who was my favourite).
Rhine lacks the intelligence, spark and drive to be a heroine, particularly the kind of kick-ass heroine I like to see in my dystopians (I mean, the girl does decide to run away in the middle of a hurricane). For someone who claims she is determined to escape her kidnappers, it sure takes her a long time (roughly a year I think) to actually do anything about it. For a girl living on borrowed time, you’d think she would have a stronger sense of urgency. I disliked the way she treated Cecily and I disliked how for the majority of the novel she did nothing, except to mope around the house, go to parties and get drunk with her husband, all the while pretending to herself she was looking for a way to get home to her brother.
Linden was perhaps meant to be a sympathetic character — he also spends a lot of time moping around his mansion and crying on Rhine’s shoulder at night because his first wife, whom he supposedly loved, has died. That’s when he isn’t busy getting his thirteen year old wife pregnant and having a bit of fun in his third wife’s bed. No wonder he isn’t getting very far with his house designing, I doubt he has much time for drawing. There was potential for a complex, multilayered character here, but Linden just comes across as naive and foolish. Oblivious to what is going on in his own home, he believes a group of frightened, restrained, starved, possibly beaten, girls are there by choice as they are paraded in front of him for him to take his pick of. He wasn’t an all out evil character, but he wasn’t a particularly nice, or interesting one either.
The romance in Wither is odd, in that, I would argue there wasn’t really any. Gabriel barely features, I couldn’t tell you anything about him or why he and Rhine care for one other. We are told there is a connection between them but it is never shown, and a few childhood stories doesn’t build a believable romance. I didn’t really see much of a friendship there, let alone anything more. As to Rhine’s confused feelings towards Linden, it’s pretty much what I expected from a character like Rhine. Needless to say, I wasn’t interested in either potential love interest.
There are also a lot of inconsistencies in Wither. If girls are in such high demand why shoot a van full of them just because one rich man doesn’t want them as a wife? If the human race is dying out, plenty of men would have wanted these girls and paid a lot for them. It makes no logical sense that they would have just been disposed of in that way and it nagged at me the whole time I was reading.
Why are young girls kidnapped at all? I can see it happening but it also seems that the majority of children are living on the streets or in orphanages in extreme poverty — I think a good portion would jump at the chance to be married, even to a stranger, if it meant they would be given a roof over their head and food, especially considering how short and bleak their lives were.
Why was there not more widespread chaos and panic? For the most part, Wither is very a very calm, plodding novel. Rather than anyone fighting for their own survival, we have three girls living in a mansion, agonizing over their designer dresses and going to parties. Wither suffers from a lack of tension and any sense of danger. I would have liked to have seen more of the outside world.
Speaking of, the world building in Wither is unsatisfactory. A third world war led to the melting of the ice caps and the utter devastation of everywhere apart from North America because they were the most technologically advanced? This novel takes place in New York and Florida. How exactly is it that these areas aren’t under water? How does Rhine travel between the two? And why does North America survive and no where else? It doesn’t make a lot of sense and is a flimsy explanation.
I also didn’t quite understand how it was that everyone had become a victim of this strangely precise virus and all within the same generation? Surely only the rich and privileged would have been able to afford this kind of advanced genetic engineering? It’s also highly unlikely that there wouldn’t have been groups religiously or morally opposed to this type of experimentation — where are their children, grandchildren?
In no way do I want to read about a young girl being sexually assaulted, but when your whole premise revolves around your protagonist being kidnapped and forced into marriage for breeding it is unrealistic and far too easy to have her live with her husband for a year without him once demanding, or forcing her to provide him with a child. If you’re not willing to go there, don’t write a book where the whole plot line pivots on this very issue. I expected to see Rhine fighting for her life, her body and her freedom. For a novel that depicts the collapse of women’s rights it’s strangely hard to feel outraged or even concerned about the deterioration of society since we never really see or experience it in the book.
In the end, I was disappointed that Wither completely ignores or simply brushes over these complex, controversial issues to instead write what felt like a pretty story. This should have a been a very dark novel, there’s polygamy, child slavery, child prostitution, kidnapping, potential murder, oppression of women,the breakdown of society, but DeStefano chooses not to really explore any of them, except, arguably, polygamy. Perhaps I simply feel this way coming as a slightly older reader. YA can, and has, tackled these themes well and perhaps that’s not the direction DeStefano wanted to go down with Wither, but surely it is the nature of a dystopian to question?
Not everyone will have problems with Wither as I have. I personally like books that hit you hard, and that’s not what I got with Wither. Aside from that, I didn’t find the characters engaging enough or the plot line exciting enough to make this a great read for me, though there will be many readers who love it. If you are looking for a less intense, light dystopian with a hint of romance than I would recommend Wither. Its not, by any means, a bad book, simply not quite what I was looking for.