Review of “Wither” by Lauren DeStefano

In this dystopian novel for young adults (and Part One of an intended trilogy), a third world war has destroyed all but North America. The rest of the world is now just ocean and tiny uninhabitable islands. Genetic manipulation to eliminate disease has worked miracles but has had unintended consequences: now a mysterious virus takes the lives of women at age twenty and men at age twenty-five. As scientists race to find a cure, wealthier households hire “gatherers” to kidnap young girls and procure them as multiple wives for their sons. Their purpose is to breed children in order to keep their genetic lines going, in the hope that some of the children will miraculously survive.

Rhine is a beautiful sixteen-year old with heterochromia: i.e., one blue eye and one brown eye, a genetic anomaly we can guess will have repercussions later on in the trilogy. Rhine has been forcibly abducted to be a “bride” by Governor Linden, a twenty-year old whose father, Housemaster Vaughn, is anxious for him to generate heirs. Those chosen as her two “sister wives” are Jenna, who is older, and Cecily, only thirteen. They all become captives in Vaughn’s mansion.

Rhine is desperate to get back to her twin brother Rowan, the only living family she has left, but escape from the mansion seems impossible. Vaughn, who is a doctor and who is allegedly searching for a cure, keeps the girls on a tight leash. He conducts secret experiments in the basement of the house; all of the residents, including his son, seem to be afraid of him.

In time, the girls become friends, and Rhine gets close one of the attendants, as well: Gabriel, who is her own age and with whom Rhine shares a romantic attraction. But getting found out could be lethal for both of them, and for any who help them.

Discussion: Although not evident from the brief plot description given here, there are many parallels to The Hunger Games. But this book adds in kidnapping, polygamy, socially-approved rape, prostitution, and murder. And yet it’s all so soft-pedaled, you find yourself focusing on the technological wonders, the dresses, the romance, and the mystery, and before you know it, you’re on Team Gabriel or Team Linden.

I think that’s probably the only way to approach such a story if you want a popular trilogy. Although XVI by Julia Karr has a somewhat similar theme, you don’t see much gushing over it, in part because it’s so dark. And readers may not appreciate discussions of issues of class, race, gender inequality, and abuse making their way into the beautiful-girl-gets-the-guy fantasy. (I should add this is not meant as a judgment; I, for example, do not like socioeconomic issues intruding into murder mysteries. This does mean, however, that I consider socioeconomic issues unimportant.) And in truth, as John Joseph Adams points out in his discussion of dystopian fiction, “the best dystopias are not didactic screeds” although they do manage to convey their messages nevertheless.

The question is, however, should such subjects be soft-pedaled in the interest of selling a story? Should we look at this as rape being romanticized, or rather, see the characters as adjusting and surviving in the only society that is available?

Evaluation: This story sucks you in, in spite of its shortcomings and plot inconsistencies (such as a very big one involving Vaughn’s disposition on the fate of Gabriel). It’s definitely a page-turner, and like many dystopias, features breathless contests between good and evil, and hope and fear. Will I be reading the next two? But of course! I like dystopian princess fairy tales with ogres and princes as much as the next person. Moreover, I’m fascinated with how easy it is through socialization [and on a meta-level, through romantic fiction] to make the ick factor [such as, it’s okay for women to be held captive and raped repeatedly] acceptable. If I had a young daughter, however, I would definitely want to discuss the book with her and explore the ways in which domination, captivity, and brutality are eroticized.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2011

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25 Responses to Review of “Wither” by Lauren DeStefano

  1. zibilee says:

    I also felt as if this book was a little soft-pedaled, but overall, I enjoyed it and will be reading the next book. It was a little weird how these topic became a little romanticized, but I neglected to mention that in my review. You have given me much food for thought regarding this book and trilogy. Thanks for the excellent and penetrating review!

  2. amymckie says:

    The more I read about this book the more I avoid it. I just can’t bring myself to read it knowing that it’s all forcible abduction and rape and etc. And that it is all just made to be OK. Can’t handle at all! Especially if it is being eroticized and romanticized. I mean, I get that it makes the story go but if it is just made to be romantic and OK and all that it’s problematic for me because it is reinforcing this crazy cultural trend that just seems to be increasing in books and movies to say that it is OK.

    • I guess for me, it is important from a sociological standpoint to see that this is happening and see how it is happening. It’s so unbelievable that this idea (of the romanticism of rape) keeps getting recycled and by women, in spite of all the feminist teaching and awareness training and all. I wonder what it will take to get past that?!!!!

  3. Ti says:

    There were times while reading this one, where it felt absolutely wrong to continue reading. You start to justify things in order to make yourself okay with it,. For instance, the ick factor was ratcheted way up when Linden slept with the youngest in the house AND put her in a delicate condition. But when he slept with the slightly older girl, I was like.. “oh..that’s better” when I should have been just as icked out.

    I think I was okay with it, because those girls seemed okay with it. Does that make sense?

    • I think that’s the thing with this book – somehow it was all made to seem okay!

      But I also think one can read this book on two levels, which is also interesting….

  4. BermudaOnion says:

    This book seems to be getting a lot of attention and I’m not sure it’s for me. I do like some dystopia but I don’t know if I could get past the treatment of women.

  5. Julie P. says:

    I don’t know if it’s for me either but I think I’d like to see for myself.

  6. Alyce says:

    I hadn’t really paid any attention to this book, so I wasn’t sure what it was about. I read XVI the week before last and thought it was pretty good, but I liked Delirium too, and actually thought that they were like opposite sides of the same coin.

    The plot of this one made me think of The Handmaid’s Tale, especially with the girls being forced to procreate to increase the population. I may pick this one up.

  7. Sandy says:

    I’m not sold. I loved Delirium, but very much disliked XVI. I have no idea where I would fall with this one. I feel an undercurrent of bitchiness that threatens to erupt without warning when it comes to dystopia. I think I’ll read Jo Nesbo instead.

  8. Staci says:

    I may read this one. I just another review of it last week and that person enjoyed this book too. I’m debating….

  9. I’m not a big fan of dystopian literature. Too negative for this happily-ever-after reader.

    What strikes me as disturbing about these stories, as you have already mentioned, is the treatment of the female characters. I would like to think that, as feminist thinking takes hold in the near future, this sort of treatment would be rare in the far future. I hate to think that large numbers of people really like reading the titilating descriptions of rape. It doesn’t hold much hope for the future.

  10. Jenners says:

    It sounds like quite a bit of soft-pedaling went on. If nothing else, I don’t think The Hunger Games soft-pedaled the fact that they were going to KILL each other.

  11. This is just not the book. I don’t care for dystopian novels particularly YA. Though if I did I think this would be one of the series that interested me.

  12. Ann says:

    I haven’t read anything in this genre, but the cover is amazing.

  13. Iris says:

    I think at some level I would be very uncomfortable about the way the story seems to gloss or “make appear better than it is” issues of rape and abduction, etc. But I can imagine that it might suck you in nonetheless. However, exactly because of that I might want to avoid it for now.

  14. Lisa says:

    It sounds like, even with the soft-pedaling, the book left you a little horrified. Which says to me that it might be doing exactly what the author intended. Sounds interesting. And the cover is beautiful.

  15. softdrink says:

    Heterochromia, huh? You’re so good for my vocabulary.

  16. Gaye says:

    I always feel smarter after I read your reviews….

    Great job.

  17. I luuuurrrve you! I didn’t even think about how things were romanticized, I suck! I am glad you thought there were a lot of parallels to The Hunger Games, I did, too, and actually thought the plot elements themselves were very similar. I read this book super fast, but I found the ending unsatisfying and lots of it unbelievable. Even still, I did like it, and I will keep reading. Although I already forgot a lot of details.

    Never stop writing your blog!

  18. Hmm, I’ve seen incredibly mixed reviews on this. Based on some, I’ve been tempted to rush out and read it then and there. Based on this one, though, I’m a little bit hesitant. I appreciate your thoughts on discussion required for your daughter.

  19. Trisha says:

    I am so tempted to run out and just buy this one and XVI for a fun filled day of dystopian reading. 🙂

  20. Ceri says:

    I’ve read so many reviews of this book and yours is probably my favourite, Jill, because you’ve actually explained the plot properly. I’m interested in reading this – I know there have been a lot of dystopian novels released all of a sudden but this is one I’m keen to get my hands on. I like the idea that there are different topics that seem to be covered but not overly-indulged

  21. Darlene says:

    I’ve really wanted to read this one for myself despite mixed reviews. I would have issues with this type of treatment of women being ok. I definitely think that is nothing that should be passed on to the youth of today. I do have to say I like the cover – it was one of the things that really attracted me.

  22. I just finished the book today and posted my review. I was surprised that I ended up being disappointed with this. There were a few inconsistencies and things that didn’t seem to add up for me. I also really didn’t feel like I knew what Gabriel looked like, too. He’s got blue eyes and is bigger than Linden (who isn’t, Linden was described as someone who would blow away because of a strong wind!). Aagh! I must have missed it. 😦 I’m still going to read the second one, so I hope it’s different.

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