Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Wither by Lauren DeStefano

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What if you knew exactly when you would die?

Thanks to modern science, every newborn has become a ticking genetic time bomb – males only live to 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 other purpose: to escape – to find her twin brother and go home.

But Rhine has more to contend with than her freedom.  Linden’s eccentric father is bent on finding an antidote to the genetic virus that is getting close to taking his son, even if it means collecting corpses in order to test his experiments.  With the help of Gabriel, a servant she is growing dangerously attracted to, Rhine attempts to break free, in the limited time she has left. 

Wither is a suspenseful novel that I could not put down.  In fact, stupid me kept reading it until one in the morning, which wouldn’t have been a bad thing except I had to get up four and a half hours later for work. Don’t worry.  I learned my lesson.  I only stayed up until midnight the following night to finish it up.

Lauren DeStefano wastes no time in jump-starting the story.  The first time we’re introduced to Rhine is when she is stuffed into a dark room along with several other girls after they’ve been kidnapped.  It’s immediately clear that Rhine is someone who processes her environment thoroughly before deciding how best to react.  No matter how dire her circumstances, she refuses to relinquish control.  Her courage is admirable.  She’s not the kick-you-in-the-guts, guns-blazing heroine.  She’s the quiet, observant, insightful, calculating heroine who will delicately work her way out of a situation.

And that’s what she does when she's one of three picked from that group of girls and married off to Linden Ashby.  She realizes it would be fruitless to fight so she decides to play by the rules on the surface as she discreetly plans her escape.  Linden is not a cruel husband.  He’s actually sweet but he is utterly oblivious about how his latest wives have been acquired for him.  His overbearing father, Housemaster Vaughn controls the reigns.  While Rhine works hard to keep an emotional and physical distance from Linden, she also can’t help but pity his sheltered life. She and her sister wives live comfortably and are provided with the best, however, it's very much like living under house arrest as everything they do is monitored.  They are relegated to their floor of the mansion and must receive permission to be able to venture anywhere else.  Rhine knows that Linden favors her of the three wives and uses it to her advantage.  She knows the risk of the game she’s playing and she artfully does her best to hide her disgust and loathing of the two men who have stolen her life from her.

Housemaster Vaughn is best described as the father-in-law from hell.  Outwardly, he oozes gentleness.  In reality, he is just plain creepy and views the girls only as playthings for his son to keep him occupied and provide heirs.  He is quietly menacing and makes your skin crawl.  He loves his son very much and will do anything to keep him alive.  She uncovers some horrific secrets about him and what goes on in the rest of the mansion – that he’s been endlessly experimenting and looking for a cure in the basement lab.  It’s how he’s been conducting these experiments and the cruel lies that he spreads that are terrifying. Nothing is sacred and lines are easily crossed in his zealous quest to find a cure for his son.  The more she learns, the more she realizes that running away may not be as easy as she assumes. 

It’s odd to describe something terrifying as also beautiful but Wither is both.  There are painful moments when Rhine is sifting through her memories and reaching for ones that keep her connected to her brother and her family.  The memories of her parents describing life before the genetic anomalies are heartbreaking.  The beautiful moments come when Rhine finds herself sharing genuine friendships with one of her sister wives, Jenna, Deidre her stylist and also with her servant, Gabriel.  These three people provide her with the few bright spots in her miserable prison and give her resolve that she will escape and find her way back home to her brother.

Wither is a dark novel with some graphic and uneasy moments but overall I enjoyed it.  The suspense keeps you hooked and draws you into this absurdly dysfunctional world where the wealthy have everything at their disposal and the less fortunate must fend for themselves.  This upper crust society turns a blind eye to the fact that young girls are kidnapped and sold into polygamy because the grim reality is that it's a sordid means of survival for the human race.  The book has ample deceit and intrigue that leaves you guessing about what will happen next.

Wither is part one of The Chemical Garden Trilogy.

~ Bel

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