The first time that I read anything about Wither I actually screamed. I thought it was a description of one of the most utterly despicable, twisted and depraved scenarios ever constructed in a YA novel. It wasn't that I did not feel "teens" shouldn't read it. I didn't actually know whether I, personally, could handle it.
Have no fear. While Wither does raise some interesting questions, and while it does attempt to tackle some heavy issues, it's nowhere near as rage inducing or difficult to get through as I thought it would be.
In a way I am disappointed.
Rhine lives in Manhattan with her brother Rowan until a fateful day wen she is captured by gatherers and sold into the house of Linden Ashby to become one of his three brides. Rhine wants nothing more then to escape the mansion, her new husband and the posh prison she now inhabits. She wants nothing more then to be reunited with the brother she was separated from. Yet freedom is not something that will be easily obtained...
DeStefano had a lot of material that she could work with here. Imprisonment in a gilded cage, control over one's sexual and reproductive rights, the morality of a society where teens were forced to bare children knowing that they would end up orphaned, the effects of all of the above... The problem with Wither, and one of the reasons that I took a heart, is because for the most part things do not happen to our heroine Rhine. They happen around her, in front of her or behind her.
Cecily gets pregnant. Gabriel gets beaten. Jenna's sisters get killed. The worst thing that we actually see happen to Rhine herself is that she receives injuries when she attempt to escape from her bedroom window during a hurricane. While recovering she receives a few vague threats from the book's villain, Housemaster Vaughn, but in all reality nothing actually comes of those threats with regard to actual harm to Rhine herself.
Reading about terrible things happening to Rhine might have made reading Wither more difficult, but at the same time it would have also made reading Wither more real and more satisfying. If the major events of the book are technically not happening to the heroine, then the question must arise... Why are we following this character around?
Rhine has a lot of opportunities to take action. Actions that could help, protect, or save her loved ones. But at every opportunity she somehow either fails or chooses something lesser and in turn less challenging. Why doesn't she make Linden wake up and smell the java? Why doesn't she take Cecily's place and have sex with Linden? I realize that at that point in the book that she despises him. I realize how difficult doing this would have been for the character. But to do nothing and allow Cecily to lose her innocence -- and to later sit there and tell the reader that she wishes she could tell Linden how disgusting it is -- made me want to slap her.
Passive. Heroines. Suck.
Despite some of the things that he does, I actually really liked Linden. He was my favorite character in the book. I found his character deep and interesting. I love how DeStefano sets us up to hate him. I love how, as more of his truth was revealed to me, I found myself falling for him. Right along with Rhine, in my opinion. Yes, I realize that it's creepy that he slept with a thirteen year old girl. Yes, its strange that he has three wives. Yet nowhere do we see Linden being deliberately cruel to anyone. Nowhere do we see him forcing any of his wives to do anything, abusing them, etc. In fact, I feel that Linden may be one of the most kind and gentle male love interests that I have ever seen. By the end of the book, I wanted Rhine to stay with him.
I am not a Gabriel fan. It's not that I feel he did anything wrong. I just didn't connect with him. Maybe its because he and Rhine had to be so careful. Maybe its because he wasn't around a lot in the latter half of the book where Rhine and Linden seem to be connecting so wonderfully. Maybe in the sequels DeStefano will actually give Gabriel a personalty. Yes, I did just go there. That's how vapid I actually found him. I understand that to Rhine, Gabriel represented a way to rebel against her imprisonment and that he also represented a companion with whom to escape. But I just could not find a single thing about him compelling.
Housemaster Vaughn was a passable villain. Neither the greatest, nor the worst, that I've seen in a book. Since we never really get any answers from the part that he actually played in the story I feel no real reason to fear him and have no basis on which to understand him. If he is to remain the central villain of this trilogy, that is something that DeStefano will need to address. The sooner, the better.
I'm well aware the romance is not the center of Wither. But where there is a romantic subplot, you can be sure I will talk about it. This is no exception.
I touched on this briefly already, but I preferred Linden to Gabriel. I found him more interesting, I felt he had far more chemistry with Rhine, I felt a great deal of tension between them and I felt a real sense of growth in how they view each other by the time that Rhine finally does make her escape. Also: Rhine might think her "I love you" was an illusion at the end of the book, but I bought it entirely. Linden is adorable and I would love to see the two of them get together. (Please note that I do *not* mean in a polygamous relationship in which she shares him with Cecily, and that he needs to be made aware of the truths of how he met her and make things right.)
It would be a far safer choice to have the romance between Rhine and Gabriel continue since it is not really controversial in the mind of the reader. (How many of us really felt that Rhine was ever Linden's wife?) What I also found was that every time they glanced, touched, kissed, etc. it felt wrong to me. I sat there wanting to shake her. "Is this worth your life? Worth his?" I didn't buy the connection between them strongly enough to justify all that they were risking to be together. I tried to cheer for them but I absolutely couldn't.
This quote from the end of the book sums it up well:
"We are just a servant and an unwilling bride who haven't been granted one moment of true freedom to explore how we feel about eachother." (Wither, pg. 352)
Tell me, Rhine, what makes you and Gabriel so special...? Is Cecily free? Is Jenna free? Is Linden free? Something about that quote just really rubbed me the wrong way.
The Sister Wives:
I loved the bond between Rose and Rhine. And I really loved the bond that formed between Rhine, Jenna and Cecily. I like how it grew and changed, warmed and deepened over the course of the novel. I also thought that the way that DeStefano makes the actions that characters took earlier effect what happened later. This lead to a huge pair of actions and consequences that shaped several important facts within the book. (Spoiler: The fact that Cecily tells Vaughn about Rhine and Gabriel's kiss, and Jenna's plotting to help Rhine find him, v.s. the fact that Cecily sends the servant who helps Rhine and Gabriel get past the gate at the end of the book.)
This novel moved a little slower then some of the other stuff that I have been reading. But as I grew more interested in the characters I felt compelled to keep going. I am not sure if I am satisfied with the number of answers DeStefano gave in comparison to the number of questions that she brought up here. The actual writing itself was good, although I felt that at times I was being bogged down in Rhine's mind and felt the need to skim until something was actually happening again.
This book is worth reading, but it is not without it's flaws. As long as you know what you're getting into it's well worth the read. Just realize that a lot of the premise that could have been here is chickened out on.