April 5, 2011

Wither: In A Nutshell (A Cornucopia of Dystopia Review)

Imagine you live in a world where death comes early. If you're a man, you're lucky – you'll live to 25. If you're a woman, you'll only live to 20.

Imagine that people are becoming desperate to keep the human race going by any means necessary. Genetic experimentation is rampant and men have several wives. Gatherers haunt the streets looking for young girls to capture and marry off.

Imagine you are one of those girls, trapped in a life you never wanted.

Now meet Rhine. She doesn't have to imagine any of this. Why?

Because she's living it.

Wither by Lauren DeStefano

My reaction: Honestly, I had a very mixed reaction to Wither. The premise really stands out amongst the dystopian YA fare, partly because it is just so bizarre. The closest comparisons I could make are to the adult dystopian reads The Handmaid's Tale and to a lesser extent Brave New World. I found Rhine's life as a sister wife, both imprisoned and pampered, incredibly unsettling at first; DeStefano does a marvelous job of portraying life in a "gilded cage." The atmosphere of this world is disturbing and frankly kind of creeped me out (intentionally, I'm sure.) Dystopian novels aren't meant to be happy reads, obviously, but the majority of Wither was surprisingly depressing. I think this was partly because the morbid and bleak mood instilled by the nature of the world wasn't leavened by much action through most of the storyline.

The dilemma DeStefano poses with this world is not answered easily, and I welcomed the shades of grey introduced; there is no easy, simplistic message driven home to the reader, but rather just more thought-provoking questions asked. Lauren DeStefano's "point," if any, is delightfully ambiguous. The society she's created is caught between a rock and a hard place: the pro-naturalism side wants to let the human race die out, and the pro-science side is willing to go to any lengths to find a genetic cure for the virus. It's difficult to know which group to cheer for.

I did find the writing style very distancing; Rhine speaks about the events unfolding in an almost clinical, detached way. Perhaps this was intentional, to give the reader a sense of how closed-off she was from others and even from herself, but it had the effect of making it much harder to form a connection with her. Even when she did experience strong emotion, it was described in an almost 3rd-person style (despite the fact that it's written in 1st-person present).

Also, I had some issues with the last few pages. While I liked the unexpected resolution to the climax, I still thought it was too quick and easy. *Big* spoilery details, highlight to read: I thought the use of Cecily in aiding Linden and Rhine's escape was a nice twist and made Cecily's character more complex. And I really enjoyed the idea of holograms providing a way of confusing the inhabitants and keeping them trapped. However, the escape did feel simple and it's hard to believe they would be able to just slip away like that without getting caught.

Best aspect: The creativity and development of the "sister wives" premise. The dynamic between Rhine, Jenna and Cecily that develops is complex, as is each of their relationships with their husband Linden. This also added a bit of a twist to the stereotypical love triangle set-up. Although I wasn't that keen on Rhine, Linden and Cecily both caught my attention as complex and sometimes unpredictable characters. Cecily starts out as a stereotypical whiny brat, but her situation becomes all the more complicated when she becomes pregnant. Her youth and immaturity contrast sharply with her role as an expecting mother. Linden, meanwhile, is frustratingly naive about how the society operates and his father's role in everything, yet he has no problem having a sexual relationship with more than one woman. To make his character even more difficult to pinpoint, he actually seems to care about at least two of his wives. Much as the reader might want to label him as another one of the 'bad guys,' DeStefano makes that impossible.

Another aspect I enjoyed was the way DeStefano's evocative imagery paints a vivid picture in the reader's mind. Her symbolism is handled subtly, with a deft hand.

If I could change something... I wanted to like Rhine more than I actually did. The servants supposedly all like her, but I didn't find her to be that sympathetic a heroine. Certainly her situation is deplorable, but I didn't warm to her voice and she struck me as being a lot of dramatic talk but little action (spoiler, highlight to read: she continually claimed she was going to try to escape but then often passed up chances. Linden takes her into the city on more than one occasion – why doesn't she try to make a run for it then? Why doesn't she try harder to figure out the security system at the mansion? This results in almost the entire book taking place at the mansion, which limits opportunities for exciting action.)

Also, a few of the characters came off as rather flat. Gabriel's character just didn't come alive for me; he seemed too perfect and boring. (Spoilery bit: Rhine may have fallen for him, but I didn't. Their romance happens rather quickly, and I wasn't feeling any chemistry between them, so the relationship seemed forced.) The children who work at the mansion, serving the wives, all seemed to have the same sweet and eager-to-please personality, with no unique qualities to distinguish one from the other. I also thought that villainous Vaughn wasn't fleshed-out enough to separate him from stereotype. Seeing more interaction between him and his son would have brought him to life a bit more.

Hopes for the sequel? I'm thinking we're going to be seeing something of Rhine's twin brother in this next one, so I'm hoping we get a better understanding of their relationship. I'd also like to see the bigger, holistic picture in terms of how the world got to this point. And I wouldn't mind some more Linden, too!


He smiles at me, and I can't read what it means. I think, for just a second there, he looked up and saw heterochromatic me. Not a dead girl. Not even a ghost.

He brings his hand to my face, and I feel his fingertips brushing my jaw, his fingers uncurling like something coming to bloom. He looks serious and soft. He's closer than he was a second ago, and I feel myself being pulled into his gravity, and for some reason I feel like I want to trust him. I'm in his house-building hands, and I want to trust him. My lower lip goes slack, waiting for his to catch it.

Final verdict: 3.5 shooting stars. I kind of have a love-hate relationship with this book. The premise is original and complex, and the atmosphere feels just wrong enough to unsettle the reader, but the characters aren't the easiest to root for, and I did have a few issues with the plot.

Author's website: www.laurendestefano.com 

Disclaimer: I received Wither from the publisher for review.


  1. Your concerns mirrored much of my own. I thought the romance angle with Gabriel was flat and Linden really creeped me out. I did, however, love Rhine's relationship with her sister wives. I also curious as to what is happening outside of the mansion and Rhine's twin brother too.

  2. I agree, very thought provoking book and complex characters. Thanks for the review.
    Brandi from Blkosiner’s Book Blog

  3. Based on your review, I think I'd have a love-hate relationship with this book too. I want my books to have both characters I can connect with and that stand out in my mind but also a unique premise and plot. It looks like Wither does well on one but fails at the other.


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