Sep 06, 11
Read in September, 2011
It’s overwhelming, really, how underwhelming YA novel dystopias have become.
I believe that is due to the knock-off nature of the dystopian genre in general. Ever since the Hunger Games, dystopias have become the new vampires, and everyone wants to write about them.
However, it’s now about shock value. The world of the Giver isn’t so bad, really; blissful people stripped of their freedom is nowhere near as bad as teenagers killing each other on national television for fun. So it becomes a sort of ‘yeah, well, top that!’ situation.
Lauren DeStefano’s (failed) attempt to make our jaw drop is to mix early death with polygamous sex. Fun, fun, fun. Apparently, all of humanity has contracted a virus that kills off men at twenty five and women at twenty. So to keep humanity from dying out, women are forced into polygamous marriage, where they’re pretty much used as breeders until they meet their untimely death.
It’s promising, I’ll give her that. This is a bad situation to be in. However, after reading this book, I am no longer convinced this would be quite as terrible as the author wanted it to be.
Rhine, our "heroine", is one of three wives married off to Linden in the beginning of the book. Linden is five years older than her, good hearted, innocent and a generally good person. He’s also a wealthy socialite. So Rhine’s terrible, terrible life consists of wearing gorgeous dresses, swimming in her private pool, reading, eating good food, and attending the occasional glamorous party. If she wants to (and only if she wants to, which she doesn’t) she can make out and do other scandalous things with a fairly nice man who seems to adore her.
Yikes. That sounds awful.
I mean, sure, she didn’t choose this, and yes, she has to share her man with two other women, but is this really such a terrible place to be in? If she’s going to die in a few years, why not die comfortably? Yes, she knows when she’s going to expire, but there are girls in Africa who will die at that same age. Except they’ll have spent most of their lives working as prostitutes and they’ll die alone and starving in the streets.
So with that in mind, it’s hard to have a huge amount of sympathy for Rhine, who has pretty much everything a woman could ask for (save for true love and freedom), and all she can do is complain about it.
Her reasons for complaining were weak. She wants freedom, we know. But she doesn’t really seem to have a lot to go back to. She lived in the slums and only had a brother (not sure what happened to him); she doesn’t need to get back because she has a dream of curing them all and being with Linden prohibits that, and she doesn’t have a true love or family members relying on her to return to. The only thing stopping her from happiness here is her own ungrateful mindset.
Look at Katniss Everdeen. She was sent off to what was essentially slaughter, but she could be grateful. She was still awed by the Capital’s beauty and she didn’t get all pouty and emo on us (that was saved for book three). She kept fighting, and she had a reason to fight and she had family to get back to who needed her.
So when you look at Katniss, and then at the starving 3rd World Country Girls and then at Rhine… well, as I said, it’s hard to pity her when all you really want to do is slap her. Girls who can only whine about things can never cross the barrier into likable. Unless they’re funny, but Rhine wasn’t. She was mundane and humdrum and despicable.
And yet, everyone likes her. She’s Linden’s favorite wife, the other two wives befriend her fairly quickly and no jealousy is felt over her quickly (and undeservedly) acquired first-wife status, and she even has a smokin’ hot servant boy hanging on her.
Am I the only one who finds it unrealistic how these loser characters with zero personality become popular, well liked girls with tons of guys throwing themselves at them? Like, seriously, I can count on one hand how many girls in novels actually deserve these amazing guys (Ella from Ella Enchanted, Janie from Wake, um… drawing a blank here, gimme a moment). The rest are just tossed in with them because the story needs romance, and nobody wants to watch the average, boring, maybe even (gasp) not super hot person fall in love with another average, boring, not super hot person.
I guess we read to escape, not to have reality tossed back in our faces. But if we’re going to escape into fantasyland, I want some interesting characters to make this place better than reality.
Because that’s what it boils down to: the characters and the people. They make or break our situations.
It would have been tough, I think, but if Wither had had some decent characters, I would have enjoyed it, even though its plot can be essentially boiled down to ‘wear nice clothes, go to parties, eat éclairs’. However, the characters were all pretty dull and flat (save for Rose, but she died early on), and did nothing to redeem the situation.
Likewise, if the situation and plot are stellar, they can redeem the lacking characters. However, the plot is hardly there. Lauren DeStefano makes the mistake of confusing premise for plot. They are often closely intertwined (can you imagine Katniss fighting kids to the death in modern day Iowa? No?), but in some cases, this one included, the setting and plot are fairly distant. Just being like ‘we’re gonna die at age twenty!!!’ isn’t a plot. What she does with that is a plot. Sitting around and looking pretty is not a plot. That element of Wither felt like something out of those trashy rich girl books (that I admittedly enjoy. Don’t judge.), like Private or the Luxe. But that’s not a plot, people. Don’t make me say that sentence again.
Towards the end, Rhine and Gabriel (smokin’ hot servant boy who hangs on her) formulate some escape plan, so they can get out of the house and live in freedom.
Two issues with this:
1) I hate escape plans. They strike me as lame. Like, in Catching Fire (pardon the HG references here), when Katniss decides to run away into the wild with all her friends and family? I was always glad that never happened, because that would have been hugely boring. And when the escape plan is your entire plot? Lame.
2) Escape what? Your life of luxury and husband who is a kind, decent human being? Why bother? You’re still dying in four years. I mean, I get that Rhine wants freedom, but at this point, it’s just ungratefulness. She has nothing to get back to, and her tepid relationship with Smokin’ Hot Servant Boy is hardly cause to drop everything and run off to the wilderness.
So… yeah, nothing special here. Which is sad, because the premise was good, but everything that happened in the book can be essentially boiled down to Life of Luxury and Escape from… Whatever. This. Is. Not. A. Plot. (Here I go again).
I think Wither could have accomplished more if it had chosen to be a little… grittier. Show us more of the disease, show us the scary, bad polygamous relationships, not just the good ones. If you want me to believe that this is Hell, you need to show me something hellish, something legitimately bad, not just something ‘not good’. I don’t need explicit details, but a little bit of grit would be nice. Hunger Games was a book about violence. And it was violent. Not over the top descriptions of guts and blood and gore and explosions, but it was indeed violent, and it didn’t flinch away from that. It was scary and I was terrified.
Wither is not scary. I am not afraid of this world. Sure, dying at twenty wouldn’t be good, but a lot of people do it anyway. And if they can cure cancer, they can cure the disease, I’m sure. So I’m not afraid.
And isn’t that what a good dystopian is, making you afraid for your future? Something that lingers with you, so you’re lying awake at night in your bed terrified that your future may someday come down to this?
Because Wither didn’t make me afraid for my future. And if I die in a queen sized feather mattress with silk sheets and a jar of expensive candies at my side at the age of twenty… well, there are worse ways to go.