What if you knew exactly when you would die?
Thanks to modern science, every human being has become a ticking genetic time bomb—males only live to age twenty-five, and females only live to age twenty. In this bleak landscape, young girls are kidnapped and forced into polygamous marriages to keep the population from dying out.
When sixteen-year-old Rhine Ellery is taken by the Gatherers to become a bride, she enters a world of wealth and privilege. Despite her husband Linden’s genuine love for her, and a tenuous trust among her sister wives, Rhine has one purpose: to escape—to find her twin brother and go home.
But Rhine has more to contend with than losing her freedom. Linden’s eccentric father is bent on finding an antidote to the genetic virus that is getting closer to taking his son, even if it means collecting corpses in order to test his experiments. With the help of Gabriel, a servant Rhine is growing dangerously attracted to, Rhine attempts to break free, in the limited time she has left.
Wither is set in a world where genetic manipulation was created to help longevity and health for people, but the repercussions had a major fault which left future generations with a fatal restricted lifespan. Girls who can only live up to the age of 20 before they die while boys were a bit a luckier and survived up to the age of 25. Due to this, society has almost fallen apart and the future outcome for the human race is pretty dire.
Wither is a story that is very reminiscent of A Handmaid’s Tale that also has a hint of the fairytale of Bluebeard and his tragic wives. The book opens up with Rhine abducted by slavers who sell girls to brothels and to rich powerful men who are in need of wives due to the lack of females for procreation and sex. Rhine finds herself sold to be a bride for the son of a wealthy and powerful man who is from the first generation that escaped the repercussions of the genetic time bomb. Rhine is not the only girl who is to marry the son, and she is joined by sister-wives: Jenna, whose sisters were also taken along with Rhine but were killed because they didn’t make the grade for the slavers and were not profitable for a brothel, and Cecily who is 13 years old and is the youngest bride of their group. They form a polygamous marriage for the son, Linden, who is also married to Rose who is Linden’s first wife. However Rose is dying despite the efforts of Linden’s father who is working on a cure for the age related illnesses.
Rhine is desperate to be reunited back to her twin brother in New York, and despite the life of ease and luxury for her remaining years, she is determined to escape and is helped on her quest by Gabriel, a servant in the household, whom she becomes very attracted to.
Wither is a thought-provoking novel, but it was also problematic for me. Lauren DeStefano tackles serious and dark issues in a subtle but harsh way, especially about underage sex, pregnancy and polygamy. The main strong point of the book is the relationship between the sister-wives. DeStefano deftly intertwines emotions of resentment, comradeship and affection amongst them that felt very realistic, especially between Jenna and even Rose who Rhine resembles so closely, and which Linden soon transfers his affections to. Rhine’s feelings about her predicament felt very dreamlike at times and you could see how she would get lost with living in a mansion and being content with a life of luxury. However, her determination to be reunited with her twin was one of the best elements of her character, nonetheless I did find it a bit frustrating that Rhine’s dreamlike state of not doing anything dragged on far longer than it should have been. I think this affected the pace of the book, because overall nothing much really happened, other than Linden entertaining his wives and the few outings that Rhine had as part of her status as the first wife when Rose succumbed to the age related illness.
However, I really had an issue with the realism about the fact that Rhine managed to avoid the sexual advances of Linden, who ironically was emotionally invested with her than any of his current wives. Yet he had no trouble consummating his marriages with Jenna and Cecily. I really really found Linden’s character to be abhorrent and weak, and it was very uncomfortable to read that he actually conceived a child with his youngest wife, Cecily. I could not fully believe that Rhine could have escaped his sexual advances for a whole year let alone stomach being married to a man who allowed these things to happen. I can understand that the world had changed drastically and social rules had changed, but at times Rhine actually felt torn in her feelings for Linden and it felt sympathetic. I actually felt Jenna’s feelings and attitude towards Linden and his father and her predicament were more realistic and relatable as she never really forgot the reason why she was there. Her indifferent demeanor was a great way to keep herself from getting lost and I couldn’t understand why Rhine never really did the same, especially since she was so determined to escape and that for me was inconsistent.
There is also a romantic relationship that Rhine starts to grow subtly with Gabriel, a servant who works at the mansion. I wished this was expanded more, or had more tension because I found it very lukewarm and it wasn’t as developed as much as I would like. I also felt that I really didn’t get to know his character really well and at times just felt he was a plot point to help Rhine along the way.
I think overall DeStefano conveys the subjects of polygamy and forced marriages very well. However the basis, or more to the point the reasons why the world turned to this way, with Gatherers/slavers kidnapping girls to supply rich men and their sons with wives or brothels didn’t really work for me. In fact the more I thought about it, the more shaky the premise became and it really feels lately that a lot of YA dystopians have fantastic premises but the execution of the story is weak or not well thought out.
The idea that women were seen to be a desired and useful commodity rang true, but I couldn’t buy the idea of the scene at the beginning of the novel where the Gatherers killed the girls who were not chosen, especially since they were targeted specifically for sex or procreation. With the suggestion that girls were hunted and it was not safe to be in public alone and even more so that they would be seen to be used for procreation or sex.
Wither held a lot promise and it was wonderfully written, but the lack of world-building and the fact that the middle part of the book was bogged down with a slow dreamlike pace was a bit of a disappointment for me. I did like Rhine but I wished she was more proactive because at times she felt too passive and it added inconsistency to her character. But Wither is a book that really delves into harsh and difficult issues and it is rare to get a book that conveys those factors well without falling into pitfalls. Dark, dreamy and harsh, Wither is a YA that has flaws but it does make you think.
I give Wither a C+