Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Review: "Wither" by Lauren DeStefano

Sixteen-year-old Rhine lives under a death sentence. By the age of 20, she and every other woman in her generation will die, thanks to the effects of genetic experimentation. But Rhine's life expectancy may be even shorter than that. Like so many other girls, she is kidnapped, sold to wealthy men eager for children before their own lives come to an end.

Imprisoned in Governor Linden's mansion with his three other young "wives," Rhine plots to gain his favor, but also her own freedom. Neither will be easy to achieve. And the horrors of her abduction is nothing compared to the eerie power held by Linden's scientist father. 

1 out of 5 stars

I don't normally talk about this, but Wither has a really lovely cover design. Chemical/programming type symbols and graphs enclose the images and text. The design continues very prettily through the first few pages, with the dedication, complimentary blurbs, and publishing info.

Then the actual book begins.

This book, dear reader. This book.

It was recommended to me during a discussion about The Hunger Games and other YA books of the dystopian, heroine-centric variety. In a very technical sense, that does describe Wither. The narrator is indeed female (-bodied and -identified). The setting certainly qualifies as dystopian--because if "every continent but North America has been literally disintegrated, and everyone drops dead in two decades no exceptions" isn't a cataclysmic decline in society, I don't know what is.

Beyond those minimum qualifications, though, I would never again want to hear this book mentioned in the same sentence as The Hunger Games. Or any other book, really.

My gut feeling about Wither is that this is a book where the author, Lauren DeStefano, had a story she wanted to tell--one where a privileged, imprisoned girl falls in love with her captor's servant.) She jumped aboard the latest fad train (dystopia) to jazz it up. But the book fails on every level to follow through on what should be a rich and rightly horrifying premise. The dystopian setting and the death threat hanging over all of the characters is barely even window dressing, when it could have been used to develop and to motivate the characters.

If handled differently, Rhine could have had a great deal in common with Katniss. Rhine's life in Linden's mansion could be an expansion of Katniss' time being "groomed" by her pep team before entering the Hunger Games. She is whisked out of a hard, hungry life into a glittering world where she has people assigned to pamper her and make her look happy. Where Katniss fails to be distracted by the primping and the glamour assigned to her, though, I was disturbed by how swiftly Rhine--and by extension, her author--forgot the horror of her situation because her new clothes were just so pretty, and her bathwater smelled so nice.

Nevermind the sixteen other girls shot to death in the back of a van eight hours before! Nevermind that she will soon be raped by the man who has bought her and two other "lucky" survivors to be his "wives"! She has her nails painted!

I never had the sense that Rhine was making the best of a situation. I never had the sense that she was using the pretty trappings as a tool to deliberately win favor and survive the ordeal ahead of her. What I sensed was the author forgetting that she had set up a disturbing premise, because she wanted to write a fluffy romance.

And there's nothing wrong with fluffy romances! But then pick a different background premise, dangit.

Sidenote #1: The character I liked best is thirteen-year-old Cecily, the "bride" Linden impregnates within a few weeks of their "marriage." She's a child who likes trampolines and good food and reads the Kama Sutra, because her only options are either being her "husband's" favorite or dying. In my opinion, she's the only one who understands what kind of a book she's in.

I don't have words for how vapid this book is. Under its edgy, trendy dystopian shell, it's a soap bubble. DeStefano wants to write about a captor who might have knocked up his thirteen-year-old kidnap victim, but is actually sensitive and sweet(!) She wants to write about her heroine dressing up and going to fancy parties. She does not want to write about a dystopia.

Here's a fun game: take a drink every time the author forgets her own premise. Every time that Rhine gets too cozy, just think: "sixteen girls shot to death in the back of a van because they weren't pretty enough to sell!" Because if I don't remind you of it, Wither sure won't.

(Don't let me forget to mention our heroine's very unusual eyes. That's so unexpected. I've never seen that physical trait used in place of a personality before.)

We can tell that Rhine is Linden's favorite because she's the one he DOESN'T immediately force into bed with him. This is important, because a YA heroine has to be virginal and pure. Even if she's married. Otherwise it would be awkward for her to have a romance with the servant dude, who understandably(!) gets jealous and catty at any suggestion that this imprisoned sixteen-year-old might ever be forced to sleep with the man who kidnapped her.

Sidenote #2: The lengths that Wither will go to in order to not say the word sex, much less rape, is truly incredible, given that this is a book about underage girls being kidnapped and sold to wealthy men. I don't think the "S word" appears at all. The "R word" occurs once, describing--metaphorically--the effect of age upon a woman's beauty. (To which all I can do is shake my head.)

The setting is so poorly thought out that it's jarring. Six of the seven continents have been absolutely obliterated, leaving only oceans and small irradiated islands, but this has had no effect on either climate or ocean level. Except for the genetic experimentation that resulted in the low life expectancy, there are no technological or scientific advances. Rhine describes her life in New York as absolutely indistinguishable from modern day civilization (she rides buses and double-decker ferries, meets tour guides, reads newspapers, works in a call center, buys carnations in gift shops for Valentine's Day, and puts quarters into a telescope to view the Statue of Liberty) but has never heard of a soap opera or Christopher Columbus. Or Christmas. There is no cohesion.

I couldn't help noticing that, while DeStefano carefully eradicated all peoples but white Americans from her cast--by straight-up obliterating every continent where any less-pasty persons are presumed to reside--she did save elements of certain exotic cultures. We may have lost Japan, but at least we preserved the most important memories of Japanese culture--geisha girls and koi ponds! And it sure is a shame that India with its 1.2 billion people is gone, because it would have been so nice for our (white) heroine to wear saris and henna, put jewels on her forehead and ride elephants.

Every word I just typed was a direct reference, btw.

By the end of the book, Linden's "wives" have formed a bond which is a little touching to see, but by that time my disgust and outrage with the book's insincerity had far outweighed any small grain of positive development. I cannot in good conscience recommend this book to any reader (except for that small number who delight in finding out just how terrible something can be.)

The good news is that Wither was optioned by a film company in 2012, so maybe soon you'll have the chance to see it on the big screen! Can't hardly wait.

Complexity of Writing: 2/5
Quality of Writing: 1/5
Strength of Characterization: 2/5
Logic of Plot Development: 2/5
Evocation of Setting: 1/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 3/5
Resolution of Conflict: 3/5
Emotional Engagement: 1/5
Mental Engagement: 1/5
Bechdel Test: fail?
Diverse Cast:  fail
Content Warning: violence, forced marriage, implied sexual assault, medical torture


  1. Hahaha. Thanks for writing this! It sounds awful... but I'm totally going to pick it up (at the store for 10 seconds) just so I can laugh at the awfulness.


    1. I really should put more thought into a drinking game for bad books. This one would be a winner.

  2. Oh, I giggled at the terribleness, I giggled so hard. I'm curious about the question mark next to the Bechdel Test though, what's the confusion?

    1. The "?" is because while I am pretty certain that Linden's wives never have a conversation that doesn't eventually turn back to him (because what else do women discuss but their romantic prospects?), I can't say it with absolute certainty because I didn't want to reread it.