The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

If he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you'd be? (Review: Wither by Lauren DeStefano)

Lauren DeStefano
Harper Collins 2011

Rhine has always lived with the knowledge that she will not live past the age of 20 and her brother will die at 25. In a world cured of disease, some strange anomaly has led to men and women contracting a strange virus that kills by the clock. Rhine’s world has since been divided into the haves and have nots – the remainder of a healthy, older first generation and their children and those like Rhine and her brother who survive in menial jobs and slum apartments. For young women like Rhine there is the added aspect of Gatherers, who prowl the streets looking for young brides to offer up to rich husbands in a vain attempt to save the human race by way of forced reproduction. When Rhine is caught and delivered to a strange and frightening house she finds herself caught between her new husband, his father, her sister wives and a servant who she cannot dismiss. Wither follows her struggle between what is expected, what is right and what she most desires.

Rhine is an interesting protagonist. She’s clearly led a fairly hard life in a pretty hard world and has strong views on what is right and what is wrong yet she seems to have been largely dependent on her twin brother and when she is moved to husband Linden’s mansion she moves to being emotionally dependent on firstly Rose (Linden’s first wife), then Gabriel (her servant), Jenna and eventually even Linden himself. While she never entirely loses her will to escape she also goes through periods where she doesn’t seem to try too hard to leave and is honest about the fact that she enjoys many of the perks offered by Linden and his lifestyle. However, she never entirely resigns herself to the situation and keeps a barrier between herself and Linden.  She’s not unlikable but is certainly flawed, slightly naïve and sometimes a little selfish or even spoilt – none of which are out of place when her young age and strange situation are taken into account.

Rhine’s sister wives seem to represent different aspects of her own personality. Rose, happy to live as Linden’s wife with all the respective perks; Cecily naïve and excited by the prospect of motherhood and Jenna grimly resigned to spending the last few years of her life as a concubine.  Each character is well written with Cecily being particularly compelling (and often heart-breaking). Linden himself is a hard character to like in that he is not entirely un-likable.  Rather than being a complete monster, he’s a rather gentle character who seems to be completely under the spell of his domineering father.  He seems to have no idea that the situation in which he places his brides is at all unsavoury and certainly does not push Rhine to do anything that she does not want to do (apart from stay in what is effectively a pretty prison).  However, his lack of backbone doesn’t stop him from sleeping with 13 year old Cecily and it’s rather hard to sympathise with anyone who is so unrelentingly weak. The other male character of note is Gabriel.  While he is perfectly nice he seems to have been written rather vaguely.  At the end of the book he remains rather a non-entity (if a vaguely interesting one) and one can only hope that DeStefano is going to expand his character in sequel, Fever.

The plot of Wither is actually fairly slight.  Rhine is captured by the Gatherers, taken to Linden’s mansion where she finds out all sorts of intriguing/horrible things about his father and the world she lives in and gradually plans an escape attempt.  What makes Wither so readable is the world-building and moral issues it raises.  It’s not a comfortable story to read and, to an extent, the science, world-building and dodgy morality is full of holes.  Why the forced capture of brides?  Wouldn’t young people reproduce anyway?  How are 10 year olds such excellent fashion designers and life coaches (albeit in the guise of servants)? Also deeply problematic/disturbing (depending on your point of view and almost definitely both) is the issue of Linden and Cecily which seems to be largely accepted by those around them even, to an extent, Rhine.  A twenty-one year old man having sex with a thirteen year old girl is extremely hard to swallow and, while this may be the point, when said man is also the third prong in a rather obscure love triangle it verges on extreme bad taste, at the very least.  However, Rhine’s relationship with Linden is explored cleverly and is tinged with more than a little Stockholm Syndrome. Still, there is little in Wither that won’t give readers pause for thought and it is certainly a story that will inspire either admiration or absolute disgust.  This reader, for one, is slightly conflicted and is thus reserving judgement until the end of the Chemical Garden trilogy – at the moment it could go either way.  However, DeStefano’s writing is starkly beautiful and her vision of an apocalyptic Manhattan juxtaposed against a Looking Glass house of holograms and candy is eminently readable as is her complex plot and characterisation.  What comes next is anyone’s guess…


"...her vision of an apocalyptic Manhattan juxtaposed against a Looking Glass house of holograms and candy..."

You said that. It makes you cool.

The book is flawed, no doubt but DeStefano wins with her relentless mind- er...effing. It's a disturbing read but that's what makes it sooooo goooood.

I demand that you link to this in bookclub and force Donna to read it. I feel rather fangirlish towards you after this post.
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