Book Review: Sever, Lauren DeStefano (2013)

April 13th, 2013 12:17 pm by Kelly Garbato

Cicely saves the day!

four out of five stars

Trigger alerts for discussion of rape, violence, and drug use.

Having managed to escape Vaughn’s mansion for the second time in as many books – this time, through a botched, drug-fueled suicide attempt – Sever finds Rhine Ellery recovering in a Florida hospital room, surrounded by her (soon-to-be ex-) husband Linden, sister (-wife) Cicely, and their young son Bowen. Though Linden’s feelings for his estranged wife are complicated and oftentimes contentious, he refuses to relinquish Rhine for use in his father’s experiments. Instead, Linden “gives” Rhine her freedom and agrees to help her in her quest to find her missing twin brother, Rowan, now a pro-naturalist “anarchist” who’s taken to bombing research labs. (Scare quotes because the term “anarchist” is bandied about without further explanation.) Along the way, Rhine and her companions discover more than they bargained for, including answers to many of the questions raised in The Chemical Garden trilogy. In the face of unthinkable tragedy – and not insignificant triumphs – the survivors also find home, family, and hope amongst one another.

I hesitate to say much more about the plot, since it’s filled with unexpected twists, turns, and intersections (some of them admittedly 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 likely Sever will prove a pleasant surprise. Fast-paced and full of suspense, Sever will have you glued to the couch (Kindle?). DeStefano’s prose is, as always, lovely, poetic, and brimming with detail. A number of old favorites – including those you just love to hate – reappear: Vaughn, Madame Soleski, Jared, Lilac, and (yes) Gabriel (though his face time is blessedly limited). We also meet Linden’s uncle Reed, an eccentric and delightful recluse who was banished from the mansion after Vaughn’s experiments nearly killed Linden in childhood, and travel to Hawaii which, contrary to the American government’s claims, does indeed still exist.

When Reed cautions Rhine against believing everything (anything!) written in history books, I at first took it as a sly nod at modern revisionist history (history is written by the victors, who aren’t largely known for their impartiality). However, it’s also meant quite literally: in Rhine’s recent past the government routinely confiscated and destroyed books, only replace them with ones deemed more favorable to President Guiltree’s interests and agenda (namely, controlling the masses).

In some of the less favorable reviews of Wither, not a few readers wondered why Rhine wasn’t honest with Linden from the start. After all, he clearly adored her, and if she told him that she wanted to find her brother Rowan – or even take leave of the mansion altogether, having been kidnapped and forced to marry Linden against her will – no doubt he would do whatever she wanted. Nevermind that, from birth onward, Vaughn has isolated his son, lied to and manipulated him, and kept him largely dependent and ignorant. When faced with such horrifying accusations – including kidnapping, rape, murder, and vivisection – who’s a young man to believe: the only parent he’s ever known, or a virtual stranger? It’s rather obvious why Rhine deceived him as long as she did.

Indeed, she’s vindicated in Sever: Linden responds more or less how I (and Rhine) expected he would. Rhine’s claims are largely met with disbelief and hostility, supporting evidence aside. (At the close of Fever, Linden is reunited with his runaway wife when he finds her bleeding out in his father’s basement laboratory, where she’d been kept captive for a month or more without his knowledge. Further, a tracker is found in and removed from her thigh, just where Rhine says that Vaughn put it.) Even with Cecily to back up parts of her story, Linden struggles against the realization that his father – the only loving constant in his life – is a monster. It’s not until Cicely nearly dies during a miscarriage – a pregnancy not only medically sanctioned but actively encouraged by Vaughn – that Linden begins to accept the truth about his father. Even then, he has trouble extricating himself from Vaughn entirely, not just physically but emotionally as well. Family is family, no matter the terrible things they do – a lesson Rhine learns well enough when she discovers that Rowan is involved in lab bombings, much like the one that killed their parents.

Perhaps most tellingly, Linden reveals that Rose also tried to warn him about Vaughn, but he didn’t believe her – the self-described “love of [his] life” – either. If Rose was shut down so readily, what chance did Rhine have?

In fact, even as he accepts her story, Linden places much of the blame on Rhine (and Rhine, on herself). She’s ‘brutal,’ ‘vulgar,’ and ‘cruel’ (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the gist). Gone is the pleasant and agreeable young wife who hung on his arm at parties and allowed him to cry into her neck in the dark of night. Now Rhine is telling him things – ugly things – about his father, things he doesn’t wish to hear, and without sugar-coating them to spare his feelings. (Poor Linden!) This is victim-blaming and messenger-shooting at its finest. (Another reason why I adore Reed: he’s seemingly the only one who’s not buying it, not for one second. Reed is Team Rhine all the way.)

It’s not surprising that Rhine willing shoulders much of the blame for everyone’s misfortune – when really, Vaughn is the true villain and instigator here – and yet, it’s terribly frustrating and deflating just the same. As Germaine Greer recently explained: “Women feel more guilt than men, not because of some weird chromosomal issue but because they have a history of being blamed for other people’s behavior. You get hit, you must have annoyed someone; you get raped, you must have excited someone; your kid is a junkie, you must have brought him up wrong.”

Just as Rhine (and many readers) seems too forgiving of Linden’s flaws, Madame Soleski is treated with kid gloves as well. While the unexpected loss of her daughter at the age of eleven was no doubt tragic, this hardly justifies buying, selling, kidnapping, drugging, and sex trafficking (read: raping) young women and taking possession of their children. In fact, the text suggests that these monstrous acts predate the death of Madame’s daughter, invalidating even this extremely flimsy excuse. Madame may indeed be “broken,” and her reasons for enslaving and exploiting others may differ from his, but she’s every bit as evil as Vaughn.

And just what is it with Lauren DeStefano and the continued romanticizing of fishing? Fishes feel pain too!

On the positive side, it’s lovely to watch Cicely mature into a confident, assertive young woman. Ultimately it is she who is the hero of the story, severing everyone’s ties to the seemingly omniscient Vaughn with one permanent and irrevocable act. Gone is the naïve orphan who just wanted to be loved; in her place, a grieving widow and fiercely protective mother steps up to save the day. Even cantankerous old Reed has to give Cicely her props.

(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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