Book Review: Wither, by Lauren DeStefano

March 2, 2011 at 8:17 pm (Book Reviews) (, , )

They created the perfect humans, eradicated cancer, took the study and practice of genetics to such a sublime level that it seemed all cares of the human race were over. Then their children started dying. Irreversible and impossible to prevent, the virus claims all post-First Generation males by the age of twenty-five, and all females when they are just twenty years old. There are some who insist that a cure can be found, and others who insist, just as fervently, that the time of the human race has come to an end. It’s a nation cut off from all others, where the divide between reality and illusion is less than paper thin but the divide between the rich and the poor is endless. It’s a world where Gatherers kidnap young women and sell them as brides and breeders, to increase the population in the short years they have.

And Rhine Ellery has just been taken.

This book is utterly captivating. I already had a copy on order because it looked intriguing when an ARC came into the store, and I sat and read it all in one go. Normally this wouldn’t be shocking, but it was well nearly eleven when I started, I was tired from a very long day, and David had on an achingly, hysterically bad movie that was begging to be mocked, but I did not want to put this book down for anything.

Rhine is an intelligent, observent narrator, one with steady determination that’s sometimes sorely tried, one who makes plans but is- for the most part- cautious in implementing them. She’s very aware of the horrors of the world around her, but also of the small joys that can be occasionally found, and though she knows they’re gone too soon, she savors those small moments. She’s a fully realized character, well rounded, with strengths and weaknesses and a history that, while often painful, only adds to current action without bogging down with backstory. The present tense narration is clear and immediate, but even in her misery she’s never self-pitying. She has a strength that sometimes folds into tears but that’s by no means a sum of who she is. Rhine is a formidable character.

And she grows.

It’s a tricky thing in YA books, showing growth within a single volume (especially if it’s part of a series), and a lot of authors don’t really manage it. Some don’t even seem to make the attempt. Others spread the growth out across so many books that despite the action it seems as though time is crawling. But Rhine takes in all of her experiences, even the unpleasant ones, and grows from them, learns from them. Nearly a full year passes within the book, and the Rhine at the end and the Rhine at the beginning have a vast difference between them. They’re both Rhine, both innately the same character, so it’s not a matter of inconsistency but of genuine growth.

Another element that both amazed and gladdened me was to see how well-drawn the other characters were. The sister-wives, Jenna and Cecily, their forced-husband Linden, Lady Rose…each has a strongly defined character that stands on it own, and yet the interactions between them are absolutely fascinating to watch. Jenna, who is almost appallingly indifferent to her own state, is nonetheless a steady force of strength through the book. She’s also a fine example of bitterness, hatred, and grief, but even those temper her strength into something true and resonant. Spoiled little Cecily, headstrong and clueless and desperate for the illusions she thinks are real, who throws tantrums and abuses the staff and begrudges anyone anything in which she can’t also take part, is also touchingly vulnerable, a child who has no comprehension of the world she lives in and can’t bring herself to understand even when she’s battered by the reality.

Linden at first seems less finely drawn, but as the story unfolds, as his character unfolds, we start to realize the sinister underpinnings of that almost-vagueness. There are pieces of him that are touchingly real, and then there are pieces that feel, in a way, unfinished- until we realize that’s exactly what they are. Sheltered and hopelessly naive, he has no idea how the world works beyond his home, and even less of a clue of how it works within. More than a stronger drawn character would have, he defines that clash of illusion and reality that seems, in some places, so seamless. Rhine and Jenna both see their cage clearly, Rhine determined to escape it, Jenna equally determined to punish the people who put her there, but neither Linden nor Cecily even understand that the cage exists. It’s terrifying, but it’s also very, very real. Gabriel, a servant with whom Rhine shares a deep and slow-building attraction, is in that nebulous state of transition where he was once free but has largely forgotten what it was like, and so is caught between two worlds without a full understanding of either of them.

Only one significant character is left largely undefined, that of Linden’s father Vaughn, a First Generation doctor intent on finding a cure, and yet the purposefulness of that choice draws him in such a deliciously ambiguous way that it still sends prickles down my spine. Vaughn Ashby is a terrifying man, the kind of terrifying you feel right down in your bones even if you can’t fully define it. We see the fake charm, the iron will, the secretive, manipulative side of him, we see the dangerous side, the fanatic side, and we see subtle flashes of things far, far worse, but the fact that we never get to see ALL of those piece come together into a clear understanding of the monster that lurks beneath the luxurious house renders him an ominous threat for the two books to follow.

No book, of course, is perfect, and there was one continuing thread through this book that had me gritting my teeth each time it came up: the weather. Rhine is a New York native taken from Manhattan and brought to a- for lack of a better word- plantation in Florida that includes a massive stretch of orange groves. So, pretty much, the central swath of Florida including the coastal areas. And yet, she’s talking about early autumn cold (though we keep 90s into December), a flurry of red and gold leaves (oranges are evergreens, and while there are individual trees of other species that may turn red, gold, or orange, most either stay green or just die), and then SNOW. Not just a flurry that melts before it hits the ground or may actually linger on cars and grass for half an hour or so (and it’s front page news when it does) but actual SNOW like you find up north. Pandhandle gets some snow each year, sure, but that’s not orange country. There was also a fairly loose grasp of hurricanes, which got to me a little, but mostly it was the seasons that really irritated me. At one point she makes a comment that she’d thought Florida more temperate, but there’s no discussion of anything that would have happened to change weather patterns, no signs that we’re swinging into an ice age or anything, so the significantly changing leaves and the actual snow drove me crazy.

At the end of the day, though, if that’s the worst I can say of a book, I’m happy as a fool in love. STRONGLY recommend this book, the first of the Chemical Garden Trilogy, which comes out on March 22nd.

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