Emotionally gripping debut with a few stumbles, 3.5 stars
Lauren DeStefano’s debut novel, WITHER, opens with a harrowing scene: young women have been plucked off the streets and forced into the back of a van. Some will be killed, and others will be sold into polygamous marriages. Ever since geneticists made a mistake, all women die at age 20 and all men at age 25. Along with two other women, Rhine is sold to a wealthy man as a replacement for his dying wife. Locked away in his mansion, Rhine must decide whether to accept the life of luxury she’s been provided or whether to risk everything to escape back to a world of freedom and her twin brother.
WITHER opens with the best first chapter I’ve read in a while, and the story’s hook will grab readers immediately. The book excels in its chilling depiction of the realities of Rhine’s world, and the writing doesn’t shy away from descriptions about sex and sexuality, the inner workings of the polygamous marriage, and how different people would adapt to the situation. Through its story, the novel also touches on hot issues like assisted reproduction and genetic engineering. Rhine and her two sister-wives, Cecily and Jenna, are sympathetic as characters in their own unique ways. I found their complicated relationships with one another to be the most compelling in the book. The novel also finishes with an ending that can stand on its own, even with the known sequel forthcoming.
Despite the extremely strong opening, storyline, and created world, the book faltered a bit. The mythology and world building regarding the “virus” and the resulting society was not always clear and had some plot holes. Rhine’s romantic relationship with Gabriel, the servant boy, wasn’t very moving, and some of the characters’ actions were unclear in their reasoning or felt manufactured. For example, Rhine’s flip-flopping about whether to stay or leave didn’t always feel genuine. The different relationships depicted between Linden, the husband, and each of his wives also felt out of character for each woman at times.
While I did find a few things that could be improved, DeStefano is obviously a strong new force in the young adult dystopian genre, and I look forward to seeing where book two in her trilogy leads.
Note: This review refers to an advance reader's copy.