Friday, July 4, 2014

Book Review - Lauren DeStefano's Wither

Wither (The Chemical Garden Book 1) by Lauren DeStefano
Published by: Simon and Schuster
Publication Date: March 22nd, 2011
Format: Hardcover, 368 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Rhine is one of three. There were more girls, lots more. All snatched off the streets and locked in a van and driven for inspection by their future husband. The ones that weren't chosen had a fate that still haunts Rhine as she remembers the gunshots in her nightmares. The world is dying. Aside from the first generation who are gracefully aging, all females die at twenty and all males at twenty-five. Rhine has four years left to live and she doesn't intend to be trapped in a cage for the pleasure of her husband while her old life and her twin brother are out there, waiting for her return.

But Rhine and her sister wives, Jenna and Cecily, are kept under lock and key in their palatial rooms taken out just for special occasions, and never, ever, allowed to leave the property. They wait on their husband's whims while their fear of their father-in-law, Housemaster Vaughn, grows daily with rumors of his medical experiments in the basement. While Jenna and Cecily have accepted their new lives, Rhine can't, Rhine won't. She will gain her husband's trust and then make her move. With the help of a servant, Gabriel, she hopes to escape, no matter what her conflicted feelings about her husband, Linden, are whispering to her heart.

If Shirley Jackson was writing YA today, this is what her book would be like. There's just such a compellingly creepy vibe within this dystopian world that's part Logan's Run part Mormon nightmare that harks back to classics such as The Turn of the Screw and The Haunting of Hill House but written for the sensibility of today's teens who were raised on a steady diet of reality shows. There is a scary believability to the story that makes it that much more terrifying. The isolation of this small group of women as sister wives might seem to some preposterous, but I say, look to the past and you can see terrifying echoes of what was and what could be again.

As recently as the Victorian era women were literally property. Their husbands owned them and could do what they liked with these all too human possessions, from turning them into baby factories, using them as accessories, to locking them up in an asylum if they got out of hand. DeStefano has just taken what was and amplified it ever so much to pile on the creep factor. By taking away all choice in marriage (again, something that was rare anyway), by cranking down the ages of the brides, by allowing marriages to have more then one wife, and by adding medical experimentation, she has created a heightened reality that scares me yet I could totally see it happening, even today in some hidden compound in the woods.

Wither varies from other dystopian books in that while this virus that has somehow become a ticking time bomb in the genetic code making women die at twenty and men die at twenty-five is front and center, it isn't, in my mind, what the book is about. World plagues are common fare for post apocalyptic books and this does give Wither the every moment is precious and each moment left in captivity is one less moment of freedom vibe. Yet looking deeper, this isn't about the plague, or a downtrodden society, or a lack of creature comforts, which the characters actually have far more of in captivity then in freedom, it's about the encroachment of human rights and what all these things that have happened to society mean to woman, and a select few women in a large house in Florida, and four wives in particular.

While I mentioned earlier the Victorian mentality that is revived here, it also pays to just look at the world around us as it is. Women's reproductive rights seem to be a fine topic of discussion in the government where men who know nothing feel they have every right to say what happens to my body. Vaughn is just a totem of these people's views with his experiments and his liberties with his daughters-in-law's bodies. A plague killing us young, yeah, could happen eventually, but our rights to our own bodies, that could happen sooner rather then later and that really scares me.

Yet the acceptance of this world and this life would be the scariest of all. By having three wives we are able to see how three different people react to a similar situation. Jenna views it as a comfy prison to live out her remaining years, Cecily views it as her dream come true, while Rhine... Rhine is where it gets interesting. While Rhine never gives up on her plans to escape captivity, by having her as the book's narrator we get more insight into how she feels. While it is obvious that the wives come together with their traumatic bonding, a situation like this can not help but bring up Stockholm Syndrome.

Rhine has lived in a society where it was highly likely that at some point she was going to be snatched off the street and forced into some kind of bondage, either prostitution or marriage. So she already has an expectation of capture. Therefore, once captured, her expectations and reality will clash, and the question becomes, will she submit to her fate or fight? She does maintain a fight deep down, but also she is able to sympathize more and more with, not only her fellow wives, but with her husband. She grows to care for Linden. It is not known if Linden knows the full horror of what has happened to Rhine and how her life was destroyed by becoming his wife, so Linden could either be a co-conspirator or a victim like Rhine, but either way, Rhine does come to "love" Linden... her small acceptance of this life is the scariest, yet also sadly understandable, aspect of Wither.


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