Monday, February 28, 2011

Review: Wither by Lauren DeStefano

From the back: 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.

I read a lot of dystopia fiction in 2010, and Wither by Lauren DeStefano is one of the most memorable books in that genre. So I'm just going to put this out there: Wither blew my mind. This is the book you can't put down, the book you want to linger over even as you're crazily flipping the pages, the book that gets you quietly screaming "AHHHHHHHH" on the inside. The characters and their lives gripped me by the throat and heart.

You can't even begin to imagine how immersive this dystopic world and future is. The novel takes place almost entirely in the mansion, a beautiful, luxurious world that is a prison for Rhine. Rhine and her sister wives, Jenna and Ceceilly, are given everything to entertain themselves, but they're never fully able to forget the reason for their life on the estate. The future they live in is strongly felt, invading even their idyllic garden.

Rhine is one of my favorite heroines, ever. She's clever and manipulative, and her end goal is to get back to her twin brother. Though she grows close to Linden, she never wavers from her desire for freedom. Recognizing the advantages of being the "first wife" (or head wife), Rhine plays the game and quickly becomes Linden's favorite wife...while she grows closer to Gabriel, a servant in the household. I really liked reading about romance between Rhine and Gabriel, but the focus is on Rhine and her relationship with her sister wives. Rhine, Jenna, and Ceceilly are strong in their own ways, and several of my favorite scenes were when it was just the three of them, existing together and struggling to survive or cope.

The book isn't filled with action-packed moments, but everything is fraught with tension - from both the menace of Linden's father, and the inescapable knowledge that their lives are winding down. The writing is beautiful and haunting. Rhine lives in a dying world, and so all the living, mortal things are noticed and treasured. The garden in bloom, the orange grove, the seasons that are so powerfully felt...the writing is poetic. (And I was reminded of Robert Frost's poem "Nothing Gold Can Stay.")

Wither is book one in The Chemical Garden Trilogy, but happily it also stands powerfully on its own. Wither will be published on March 22, 2011.