Book Review: Wither, Lauren DeStefano (2011)

March 26th, 2013 4:30 pm by Kelly Garbato

This is your life, and it’s ending one minute at a time. (*)

four out of five stars

Trigger warning for rape and violence.

At the tender age of sixteen, Rhine Ellery is already well past middle age. Genetic experimentation meant to rid the world of disease and extend the human lifespan has instead had the opposite effect: all women can expect to die in their twentieth year, and men only live to see twenty-five. In a world mostly absent of adults, the streets of New York City are overrun with orphans who beg and steal to get by. Children are sold as guinea pigs, experimented on in hopes of finding an antidote to the unnamed sickness that strikes down young people before their lives have even begun. “Gatherers” in gray coats and dark vans roam the streets, kidnapping girls and young women to sell into sexual slavery or as child brides. Girls deemed “unsellable” are murdered, their bodies discarded along the side of the road like sacks of garbage.

Though their lives are far from ideal, Rhine and her twin brother Rowan are better off than most. They are orphans – but, unlike most orphans, they were lucky enough to know their parents. Members of the “first generation” of genetically modified humans, Mr. and Mrs. Ellery lived long and healthy lives, the sickness that kills young adults only manifesting in their children and grandchildren (and so on down the line). In fact, they probably would have outlived Rhine and Rowan, had they not been murdered by “pro-naturalists” who bombed the lab in which they were employed as geneticists. Rhine and Rowan are relatively well-educated and, while they were forced into the workplace at the age of twelve, they’re lucky enough to have a roof over their heads and food to eat. A meager existence, but one far better than freezing to death on a stranger’s porch, as Rhine finds a homeless girl one winter morning.

Rhine and Rowan struggle along this way for four years – working odd jobs during the day, holing up in the basement and guarding their few possessions in shifts at night – until the fateful day when Rhine is snatched up by the Gatherers. Lured in by an advertisement seeking paid bone marrow donors, she’s one of more than a dozen girls smuggled to Florida to possibly become one of Linden Ashby’s wives. Only three make the cut: 13-year-old orphan Cecily, 18-year-old Jenna, and Rhine. The rest of the captives – including Jenna’s sisters – are killed, shot as Linden’s limousine pulls away.

All this transpires while Linden’s first and thus far only wife Rose lays dying in her bed (read: prison). Though her only wish is to die in peace, Housemaster Vaughn – Linden’s father and a wealthy first generation medical doctor – will not let her go quietly, as Linden is deeply in love with her and, indeed, becomes distraught at her death. Perversely enough – for Rose herself is a captive in this fake paradise – procuring new brides for Linden is at least partly Rose’s idea, meant to ease his grief after her passing. Vaughn happily complies, as more brides means more bodies and babies to experiment upon. Unlike the pro-naturalist faction, Vaughn still has hope that he can find an antidote, preferably before Linden’s twenty-fifth birthday. And if he can’t save Linden? Perhaps his one of his new daughters-in-law will continue the family line.

Grim and not a little morbid, Wither is a gripping read – no small feat, when you consider that the narrator spends most of her time confined to one floor of a mansion. Shades of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (to be fair, I say this about all the reproductive slavery dystopias!), Wither is also reminiscent of the recent Bumped (and its sequel, Thumped), but with a plot that’s somewhat inverted: rather than living a normal lifespan with a drastically reduced period of fertility, the characters in Wither are cursed with a normal reproductive cycle coupled with a life span cut short. It’s interesting to see how these two narratives play out: in Bumped, young women are encouraged (under the guise of “empowerment”) to exploit their fertility while they’re able, while in Wither pregnancy is more of a curse, one that’s seemingly largely perpetuated by first generations, who have both the money and time to dedicate to children. Whereas Bumped is irreverent and kind of quirky – peppered as it is with futuristic teen speak – the tone of Wither is much more somber and introspective.

Rhine spends much of her time in her own head, lost in memories of Rowan and her parents and fantasizing about strange and unknown worlds, those (supposedly) now found only on the pages of old atlases. (The American government would have its citizens believe that they are alone – that the rest of the world was destroyed in a nuclear war. Like Rhine, I have my doubts.)

Especially beautiful and complex are Rhine’s relationships with her sister wives, Jenna and Cecily. Because each girl is a captive – and each captive is using her captivity in a different way – there isn’t any competition between the three. Instead, they become friends, co-conspirators, caregivers and sources of comfort. Cecily, the young orphan, eagerly assumes the role of devoted wife and mother. (Remember that she’s 13 years old. Remember this and hold it in your mind.) Jenna, who at 18-going-on-19 is the “old maid” of the bunch; Jenna, who watched her sisters die and has nothing waiting for her outside the walls of Vaughn’s estate – she sees the mansion as a luxurious place to die. Rhine has ambitions to replace Rose as Linden’s first wife, but only because the position affords her greater opportunities for escape.

From their first hours together, huddled together in a dark van, these young women formed the beginnings of an unbreakable bond:

“Linden looks so piteous and apologetic, standing there. […] when we’re together, we form an alliance he can’t touch. He’s scared to even try.” (page 306)

When Jenna falls ill, or Cecily launches into one of her ugly (but not altogether incomprehensible) tantrums, it’s one of her sister wives – not Linden – in which she finds comfort and empathy. Through their shared ordeal – kidnapping, enslavement, and rape – they find solace, if not always understanding, in one another. They may not be wives, but they’re most certainly sisters. Even when betraying Rhine, Cecily does so with the purest of intentions. (And remember, she’s still a naïve young kid.)

In fact, I’d kind of hoped that Rhine and Jenna would fall in love. Alas, Wither is predictably heteronormative; rather than entering into a forbidden relationship with one of her sister wives, Rhine falls for “servant” boy Gabriel instead. (Scare quotes because, as Vaughn’s property, it’s more accurate to call Gabriel a slave, like all the “help” “employed” at the mansion.)

Harder to swallow is Linden’s supposed ignorance about the goings-on in the mansion; fundamental to his delusions is the belief that Rhine, Jenna, and Cicely are willing wives, having trained for such a life as orphans in “bride school.” As manipulative and deceptive as Vaughn is, and as isolated as Linden may be, it’s difficult to believe that he’s so tragically lacking in common sense. Did he not hear the gunshots in the back of the van after he purchased his three new wives? Rhine vacillates between seeing him as a fellow victim and her oppressor (perhaps due in no small part to Stockholm syndrome, from which Rose also apparently suffered), but thankfully her thirst for freedom overrules any compassion she feels for Linden.

The ending – don’t worry, no spoilers! – is also unbelievable, though perhaps necessary to advance the story. And yes, I’ve already got Fever and Sever on order.

Last but by no means least: although this is a story about rape – under no such circumstances can Rhine, Jenna, or Cicely said to be willing and consenting sexual participants – the word only appears once in the text, and to describe a situation that unequivocally does not constitute rape:

“I am sorry that his dead wife is being dissected in the basement, her beauty ruined and raped, while I used her name against him.” (page 121)

As odious as Vaughn’s actions are – dissecting Rose’s body without Linden’s knowledge or consent – this is not rape. Desecrating a dead body is not akin to violating a living one. To suggest otherwise trivializes rape and contributes to our rape culture. To do so while using euphemisms (“forced himself on”) for actual instances of rape is especially repugnant.

Also, rolling my eyes at Rhine’s repeated romanticizing of recreational fishing. Fishes caught and released are more like to die of infected wounds than swim to Japan.

* This quote from Fight Club seems weirdly apropos, given our hero’s tragically short life span, and the illusory luxuries she was expected to exchange her few remaining years for.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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2 Responses to “Book Review: Wither, Lauren DeStefano (2011)”

  1. Book Review: Fever, Lauren DeStefano (2013) » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] Garden would be a one-book trilogy otherwise – our hero chooses freedom. Fever picks up where Wither leaves off, with Rhine and Gabriel’s escape from Vaughn’s mansion. The pair wash up in South […]

  2. Book Review: Sever, Lauren DeStefano (2013) » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] improbable). Suffice it to say that those who enjoyed the previous two books in the trilogy – Wither and Fever – will not be disappointed. In fact, if you thought of Fever as mere “filler,” most […]

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