Crowinator's Reviews > Wither

Wither by Lauren DeStefano
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Nov 15, 2010

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bookshelves: arcs, booklist-review, ya, 2010-reads, dystopia-and-post-apocalypse, the-future, vicarious-smoochies
Read from November 15 to 20, 2010

** spoiler alert ** 4 stars for the writing itself, 3 stars for everything else, 2 stars for vague, underdeveloped world-building. Too long review follows, and I apologize if any of it is confusing -- I had a tough time articulating the problems I had, particularly the scientific ones.

For me, Wither is a tough book to review. It has a lot of strong points: the quiet, evocative prose; the complex relationships among the three sister wives and how they change; the slow build of tension as Rhine begins to suspect Housemaster Vaughn (Linden's father) of all sorts of terrible deeds in the name of his research; Vaughn's pleasant creepiness; the cover design, which I can't decide if I like but definitely draws the eye. However, readers who like their dystopias to make sense should be frustrated by the underdeveloped, unexplored world-building, which basically became a deal-breaker for me. The premise is a movie-blockbuster idea: it has a big concept, it's stylish, it sounds like it will be salacious (but it actually isn't, and I give props to DeStefano for not making it read like a reality show like "Sister Wives" or whatever), and it doesn't make a lick of sense when you really think about it. Not a lick of sense, people!

Wither reads like a character-driven story, despite the "big idea" dystopic premise: the main focus of the narrative is the slow-growing relationships among the sister wives and with their new husband Linden. (There's also Rhine's romance with Gabriel, the servant, which actually gives Rhine the impetus to escape, but I don't feel like that relationship was the heart of the book, though I think I was supposed to. I didn't find it nearly as interesting as the relationships among the three wives.) So I think this book will appeal to readers who like stories with a lot of high drama but don't necessarily care about action. Rhine's first-person narrative fits well with a story focused on relationships: she's bitter, she's conflicted, she's reflective, and it all comes out in her voice. Sometimes her endless sadness gets a little boring, especially because it slows down the pacing, but overall it fits. The other wives -- Cecily and Jenna -- provide an interesting contrast to Rhine and to each other: Cecily is (at first) giddy with her new life; Jenna is so depressed she seems dead-set on killing herself. The way the three of them interact is probably the most believable stuff in the book, for me, especially in the slow wearing down of Cecily's happiness.

In television terms, Wither would be a "bottle episode": almost the whole story takes place in Linden's palatial mansion in Florida, in just a few rooms (and the creepy basement) and very occasionally, the orange grove. The static setting helps sell the idea that Rhine and the others are isolated and imprisoned, and it gives the tension among characters time to build. It also brings the relationships forward more, because once you've read one beautiful description of a Florida landscape or a richly appointed room, they become background for you and the characters.

A nitpick in character development for me: I kind of wanted Linden to know about the involuntary nature of his wives’ addition to his life. He doesn’t need to know everything his father is doing, there in his creepy basement, and I can’t quite buy him being as ignorant as he appears, but the way DeStefano presents it, he really does seem ignorant. He has no idea Rhine and Jenna are there against their will. No idea. How on earth does Rhine and everybody else know that girls are frequently kidnapped for wives and he doesn't seem to? Obviously, this makes him somehow who sees only what he wants to see, but it also kind of gives his character a pass (he's not really evil; he's just a sad man in a sad situation). It makes the way Rhine slowly warms to him less disturbing, because she can feel pity for him because he doesn't know the truth. The thing DeStefano has going for her is her character interactions, so I would have liked them to be even more complex by making Linden less a patsy.

So, here is where I will start freaking out about my main problems with the premise. The holes in the world-building grow larger and larger the more I think about the logistics of the "virus" and the repercussions in societies across the world. The premise, to me, is inherently flawed. For one thing, I can't actually buy how a world in which people have early deaths somehow inevitably leads to forced polygamy and sexual slavery. Sure, people need to reproduce, to propagate the species. But from Rhine's narrative, it seems like girls being kidnapped is the norm, a constant danger, and it's one of those things that seems accepted but unacknowledged -- the people doing it even have a title, Gatherers, which makes me think they are in some way socially sanctioned. But if kidnapping girls is socially sanctioned, why go to such trouble to hide it, and why on earth doesn't Linden know about it? And if it isn't socially sanctioned, if it's illegal, why bring Rhine to a fancy party that is televised and show her off? What are the police doing? Has law enforcement and government completely broken down, and if so, what's replaced it? For such a huge change -- boys die at 25, girls at 20 -- there should be huge societal repercussions, but very little of those are actually described. Everybody dies early, so there's sexual slavery now, the end.

Can we get some more information please? I don't feel like we get a convincing picture of what really happened once people started dying off. It's all in tiny bits and pieces, very vague.

After Rhine is kidnapped and chosen to be one of Linden's wives, the other girls she's been transported with are shot at the side of the road. If propagating the species is so all important, why on earth are Gatherers murdering girls who don't fit their parameters? The girls that aren't pretty enough to be Wives (apparently, the Wives are chosen partly because they are frequently televised at society parties with their rich husbands; again, how does that make sense if these Wives are kidnapped?), are sold to brothels sometimes, which fine, I'll go with it, despite the mistaken idea that brothels have anything to do with having babies. But murder? Girls should be extremely valuable. So should babies. At the very least, there are people out there doing research to cure this virus, as Rhine keeps mentioning, and wouldn't they also pay for kidnapped girls for their experiments? It just doesn't make sense that the Gatherers would waste life like this, or at least waste profit.

Rhine mentions (very briefly) that a third world war destroyed every continent except North America, because of their superior technology. It's unclear when this third world war happened or why. Did it happen before the genetic engineering that ultimately caused the downfall of humanity? After? Did it happen because of the genetic engineering? And what is this superior technology that North America had that nobody else had? Rhine says that the rest of the world has been reduced to tiny slivers of uninhabitable island and ocean. Really? What kind of war would reduce everything in the world -- except North America -- to rubble and hasn't somehow affected anything else? Such a thing would be catastrophic to our environment, at least.

Finally, I don't think the science of the "virus" makes sense. Let's just ignore how arbitrary it is that boys die at 25 and girls at 20. The point is, these early deaths are caused by a virus, as Rhine keeps calling it, and there are a lot of people working to find a cure. However, the way this virus came into existence and the way it affects people seems more like a genetic flaw, a mutation to human DNA -- as Rhine explains it, scientists created an entire generation of "perfectly engineered embryos", and that generation grew up disease-resistant and "practically immortal", and everybody stopped having children that are "flawed naturally" in favor of this new technology. But the children of these genetically enhanced superbeings, and their children's children, etc., ended up with a freakishly shortened life span. As Rhine scientifically says, "something went wrong." [These are all quotations from the ARC.] That sounds like a genetic defect to me. And if it's a genetic defect, it would only affect those children of the genetically engineered embryos. Meaning that, all of the people with shortened life spans had to come from one of these genetically engineered embryos. Which means that everyone would have had to receive one of these embryos in the first place, because otherwise, people reproducing naturally would continue to have normal babies with normal health problems and life spans. Right? There would be people too poor for such treatment, and people against it for religious reasons, and people for whom such technology isn't feasible because of the poverty of their nations. These people would continue to reproduce naturally, and those normal babies should not be affected by what seems to me more of a genetic defect arising from the initial embryos (a mutation of the original genetic code), than an actual virus. So, how could everyone in the world have this defect?

"Wait!", I know you're thinking, "but what if this occurred after the third world war, when only North America exists? So there isn't a whole world to contend with, just one continent." Same difference. North America is huge. I'm supposed to believe that everyone in North America could afford this technology? I'm supposed to believe that everybody in North America wanted this technology? There are still people who refuse to get their children vaccinated now, for God's sake, for all sorts of reasons. According to Rhine, this only started to happen seventy years before the start of the book, so where are all the non-genetically-enhanced people without shortened life spans, and what are they doing? They should be having kids that are normal.

Either way, I can't wrap my head around it. Maybe that's my fault. Maybe I am misreading some crucial bit of information that is right there in the book and I'm a moron for not getting it. But the way I understand the premise, it's totally unbelievable on so many levels that it ruined the book for me, even the parts that I liked (the writing, the characters, the creepy undertones to what's going on in the house, the descriptions of the Florida setting).

If you want to create a dystopic society without dealing in some way with current cultural/political/technological trends and how they might change in the future, set it on a colony on another planet, or in a fantasy world, or somewhere where you can bend or ignore rules of reality, where you can structure the world however you want (as long as it has internal logic, of course, which Wither may still fail to have). To create a believable dystopia set in this world, in our future, you need to understand and extrapolate how our world works and then explain it to your audience – and Wither doesn’t do this.
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Reading Progress

11/15/2010 page 32
9.0% "Hmmm...all the reviews on Goodreads of this book are glowing. Perhaps I'm just in an overly critical mood? Having trouble accepting the basic premise of the novel..."
11/18/2010 page 115
32.0% "Hints of foreboding involving Housemaster Vaughn and the credible relationships among the three sister wives are finally drawing me in to this novel." 1 comment
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Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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Lena ♫ ♪ What do you think? :)


message 2: by Shveta (new) - added it

Shveta Thakrar Did you get an ARC of this?


Crowinator Shveta wrote: "Did you get an ARC of this?"

I review professionally for Booklist (a review journal mostly for librarians and so on), so they sent me an ARC. I finally finished writing my review this morning and sent it on, and it'll appear in the January issue, I think, but the one I post on Goodreads and my Livejournal will take quite a bit longer to do. Partly because it can be longer than 170 words. (c:


Crowinator Lena ♫ ♪ wrote: "What do you think? :)"

Lena, my thoughts on this book are still so, so mixed. I'll try to deal with them in my longer review, when I get it finished. The writing is lovely. The characters are all interesting and complex. My biggest problems were with the holes in the world-building, which grow larger and larger the more I think about the logistics of the "virus" (which seems more like a genetic defect than a biological virus) and the repercussions in societies across the world. The premise, to me, is inherently flawed.

For example, the premise is that (direct quote from ARC), "flawed naturally children ceased to be conceived in favor of this new technology" (basically, in favor of genetically engineered embryos). This leads populations in every continent to be decimated when the children of these genetically engineered people have shortened life spans. Which means that everyone in the world would have had to receive one of these embryos in the first place, because otherwise, people reproducing naturally would continue to have normal babies with normal health problems and life spans. Right? And how could everyone in the world stop reproducing naturally and be artificially inseminated with perfect embryos? There would be people too poor for such treatment, and people against it for religious reasons, and people for whom such technology isn't feasible because of the poverty of their nations. These people would continue to reproduce naturally, and those normal babies should not be affected by what seems to me more of a genetic defect arising from the initial embryos (a mutation of the original genetic code), than an actual virus. So, how could everyone in the world have this defect, so much so that only North America is even populated anymore?

Is it just me? Did I miss something?


Tatiana Agree with you on all points.


Lori Wow. I'm impressed you finished this book. I just couldn't too many holes like you said!


Lena ♫ ♪ Crowinator wrote: "Lena ♫ ♪ wrote: "What do you think? :)"

Lena, my thoughts on this book are still so, so mixed. I'll try to deal with them in my longer review, when I get it finished. The writing is lovely. The c..."


I never thought of it that way. I just accepted the world as it was, lol. I didn't understand how people don't know about Japan or other countries. What happened to those people? Did they just stop reproducing?

I do agree that the writing was lovely and I enjoyed the concept of the story. The covers for these books are beauuuutiful, so it's always a little disappointing when the actual story doesn't live up to it.

Did you end up reading Fever?

(Apparently it takes me over a year or so to reply to your comments, lol)


Crowinator Thanks Lori! The writing and characterization carried me through most of the story.

Hi Lena! No worries. (c: I haven't read Fever yet; I plan to, but it's prioritized pretty low, considering all the books I want to read more. I do want to see what she does with the world-building the in the second one. Have you read it?


Lena ♫ ♪ I started to but after 50 or so pages, I had to put it down. The characters were just getting on my nerves. I'll probably try again later, but it's not high in my priority list either :-P


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