It was with a great deal of anticipation that I picked up a copy of newcomer Lauren DeStefano's book Wither. The plot sounded interesting, although somewhat familiar. Wither is the first book in what is planned to be a trilogy. My overall impression after reading this book is rather mixed but leaning more towards disappointing.
The main character is Rhine Ellery. The society Rhine lives in is decidedly apocalyptic. The entire world is destroyed and underwater except for America. Marine life is contaminated and inedible. There's no importing so all of New York's office buildings are now factories which make everything society needs. However, there are more serious problems facing mankind. Seventy years ago, a generation of perfect children was created. Cancer was cured and these genetically perfect children were treated so that they were never ill. However, their children and their children's children began to die off prematurely. For males, the life span is twenty-five while females live until the age of twenty before succumbing to a mysterious viral ailment for which there is no cure.
Wealthy people known as the House Governors live in mansions. Their families are polygamous. Gatherers who drive around in gray vans, kidnap young women to sell off to the wealthy families to breed new children before they die. Those women not chosen to be brides are either killed or sent to brothels.
Rhine is 16 years old and lives in Manhattan with her twin brother, Rowan. Their parents, first generations who were research scientists, are dead, having been killed by a bombing of their research lab by pro-naturalists who favour allowing humankind to go extinct. This happened four years ago and as a result, Rowan and Rhine had to leave school to get jobs to support themselves. While Rowan worked in a factory, Rhine did odd jobs. Rhine was captured by the Gatherers when she responded to an ad offering money for bone marrow to be used in research for a cure for the fatal virus. After being chosen to be one of three brides for twenty-one year old Linden Ashby, Rhine finds herself shipped to Florida and living in a mansion.
Although Rhine is "married" to Linden along with thirteen year old Cecily and eighteen year old Jenna, two other brides who are to replace Linden's dying wife Rose, she refuses to consummate her marriage and plans to escape. She has four years left to live and has no intention of staying around as a sister wife. Rhine is convinced that Linden's first generation father Housemaster Vaughn, who is a doctor is performing terrible experiments in the basement of the mansion. Rhine, like each of the wives, has an attendant, whose name is Gabriel. Gabriel and Rhine immediately form a connection and eventually begin to develop feelings for each other.
Despite the fact that Linden genuinely loves Rhine and his other wives, and that he is completely ignorant of the fact that they are there against their will, Rhine cannot love him and is determined to escape her prison.
Although overall, the main concept of the book was very interesting, I was disappointed that the main element, the dystopian world was woefully undeveloped and therefore not very real to the reader. The result was that I was left with a great many questions. In a world where men and women capable of reproducing are at a premium, why would the Gatherers kill off young women not selected as brides? Why would they send some of these women to brothels when they could have been simply dumped back on the street or returned home? In a world where life outside the mansion is so brutally difficult for Rhine and her brother, why would she want to escape? Life in the mansion is incredibly perfect - she has dresses made for her, and she lives a pampered life. She has only 4 years left to live so why not live them in luxury? Do all people struggle to survive as Rhine and her brother did? Developing the dystopian world is a key feature of this genre. It's one thing to reveal it piece by piece to the reader but in Wither there just wasn't enough to get any real sense of this world, although life inside the mansion was remarkably well described.
In terms of characters, it was difficult to feel any empathy for Linden who behaves like a pedophile in this novel - impregnating the youngest wife who should have been recognized as the child she is and who cannot even understand what is happening to her, all the while allowing the older wives to refuse him for months. It was this aspect of his behaviour that made me feel that Linden was much more creepy than his father. I would think a normal 21 year old male would have a natural aversion to being with a very immature 13 year old - as Cecily was portrayed.
The one character Rhine does form an attachment to, her attendant Gabriel, was poorly developed. The only things we learn about Gabriel are that he was raised in an orphanage and was born in Florida - yet he has a major role in the novel. That is until he disappears halfway through only to reappear in good time near the end to have a part in what happens to Rhine.
In an attempt to introduce a sinister element into the storyline, Rhine discovers some puzzling things about the basement of the mansion which seems to be both morgue and laboratory. Since Linden's father is a doctor searching for a cure to the virus, Rhine automatically assumes he is experimenting, although she has absolutely no basis for this belief other than a brief glimpse of something she doesn't understand. I wish that DeStefano had explored this more, perhaps through Rhine and Gabriel or Rhine and Jenna.
Generally speaking, the second book of a trilogy is usually the weakest in terms of plot and interest. I will be interested to see how DeStefano works to develop the characters further and flesh out the dystopian society she has introduced in her first book.
Wither by Lauren DeStefano
Toronto: Simon & Schuster 2011