Review of WITHER by LAUREN DESTEFANO
(review based on an advance reading copy)
WITHER grabbed me from the first page with the intensity of its premise. In this futuristic dystopia, humans finally find a cure for cancer, only to realize, decades later, that something went wrong. For reasons unknown, women now only live to twenty, men to twenty-five. (But they're cancer free!) Women are often kidnapped as unwilling brides so men can procreate before dying. Rhine, our heroine, falls victim to this crime, despite her twin brother's determined efforts to protect her from such a fate. She never could have imagined how complicated her escape would become.
DESTEFANO'S greatest strength is obvious: complex characters. Rhine constantly constructs easy descriptions and labels for the people around her, particularly her strange, new "family," only to find each individual surprises her again and again. Her eager, self-centered, younger sister-wife Cecily has moments of true tenderness and sacrifice. Her sullen, morbid, older sister-wife Jenna, the closest to death at nineteen, still occasionally bubbles over with youthful cheer. Linden, Rhine's captor and forced husband, turns out to be another breed of victim, which only makes it harder for her to hate him. The only villain here is Linden's father, Vaughn, and even he is humanized by his affection for his son.
From complex characters stem complex relationships. Understandably, Rhine fixates on escape and freedom the moment she is kidnapped, but her determination wanes when she starts caring for the people around her: her sister-wives, her ignorant husband, her loyal attendants. She even pauses to wonder why she would run away from this life, with all its comforts and luxuries.
Rhine's voice remains true to her sixteen years, and yet she demonstrates an unusual maturity not unbelievable for someone already 80% of the way through her short lifespan. An introspective person, Rhine finds quiet observation better suits her goals. She resists the temptation to lash out and instead works to gain the trust of those who now run her life, even if it means swallowing her bitterness and resentment.
I found some minor logic issues with the plot. For one, Rhine struck me as a relatively intelligent, hardened young woman and I couldn't quite follow how she could fall for the bait that led to her capture. Her actions that day seem uncharacteristically naive and hopeful. I want to avoid spoilers here, but I will say that I also had some trouble understanding the security of the mansion. One moment it was described as impenetrable, an inescapable fortress, but more often it seemed Rhine could walk out whenever she pleased.
Vaughn's character also frustrated me, because he is portrayed predominantly through direct characterization. The reader is repeatedly told how scary he is without being given a chance to form that opinion herself. Often, I couldn't follow the logic leaps that Rhine made regarding Vaughn's actions when she isn't present and had the sense that those leaps were merely an author's tool to provide us with information about Vaughn without dipping into his perspective.
Despite my nit picking, this is an intriguing book, especially with the questions raised regarding mortality, love, ethics, and gender. I am twenty-two as I write this, and would already be dead for two years in Rhine’s world.