Book Review: Wither, by Lauren DeStefano

Lauren DeStefano’s Wither is set in a vision of the future where scientists, in an attempt to fix common illnesses, have done something drastically wrong. People may not die of cancer, and eliminationism has made the incidence of genetic conditions much lower, but men die at the age of 25, and women die at age 20. What happens in a society where the time of everyone’s death is known well in advance, even as researchers race to find a cure for the mistakes of an earlier generation?

It’s a fascinating premise, but it’s not the only thing that got me to pick up the book, along with the sequel, Fever.

What first drew me was the graphic design. So let this be a word of wisdom and warning to the world; some people do judge books by their covers, and while I generally try not to be one of them, sometimes I can’t contain myself. In this case, my aesthetics guided me well; the cover is stunning, and I was really tickled by the Library of Congress cataloguing data, which was presented in a visually intriguing and striking way that fit with the style and tone of the book. I have tremendous admiration for a graphic designer who can capture the spirit of a book so well in developing an overall look and feel that draws the reader in.

And, as long as I’m digressing on a miniature graphic design rant, this is one reason I will always love dead tree books along with ebooks. This kind of layout and elegance and beauty is the kind of thing I appreciate most in hard copy format. I’m glad to own a physical copy so I can admire its beauty, even as I like the convenience and other advantages provided by ebooks. I will always be a customer for hard copy books because this is one of the things they offer that other formats do not, and I know many other readers feel the same way.

To get back on track to the actual book, and with a note that spoilers lie beyond this point, let’s talk about some of the reasons I loved Wither. For one, the language is rich, dynamic, and interesting. DeStefano painted a lush world that I think is a pretty accurate depiction of what would happen in the scenario she set up; youth run wild with few elders for guidance as the last of the first generation, people who can live out a natural lifespan, dies off. Buildings are allowed to decay and fall down, and the basic infrastructure of society is largely gone. There are no public services, for example; the wealthy have private guards and hospitals and everyone else scrabbles for existence.

Gangs rove the streets to kidnap women, selling them as sisterwives to the wealthy, who select the most beautiful among the catch. Rhine, our narrator, has unusual eyes, which makes her lucky; instead of being shot in the back of a van with the other unwanted girls, she’s sent to a wealthy man’s compound. Wither places her squarely in the middle of a gilded cage, because she’s finally safe, and well fed, and has access to a library, but she’s not free, and there are some seriously sinister doings going on within the walls of the compound.

The book does a great job of balancing the tensions between wanting to be free, being aware that the outside world is highly dangerous, and sinking into the sweet seduction of comfort and safety. Rhine thinks of her brother on the outside and how much she wants to join him so she can lead her own life, but there’s also a part of her that wonders if she should just give in and live out the few remaining years of her life; at 16, she doesn’t have long to go, and the house has a lot to offer. Like a love interest, an attendant who is afraid to leave the compound and urges her to stay where it’s safe.

Wither is a great reminder of the dangers safety can pose, and how easy it is to slip into an environment like that and never emerge. One of Rhine’s sisterwives maintains a ferocious burning hate for their husband, and she acts as a constant reminder to Rhine of the cost of their safety, helping Rhine develop an escape plan so she can make her way outside the compound, setting up for Fever, where Rhine goes off on an entirely new set of adventures, learning along the way that freedom can be illusory.

DeStefano played with the idea of what happens in a world where well-intentioned genetic engineering goes horribly wrong, and she highlighted something important here, which was that sometimes it takes a generation to figure out that something is wrong, and when you notice, it may not be possible to fix it. After multiple generations of children dying in their 20s, researchers still can’t resolve the problem they’ve created, and they watch their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren die around them while society crumbles.

When everyone dies young, it’s hard to train the next set of researchers and adventurers and everyone else, creating an ever-limiting scope for humanity that ultimately pushes it closer and closer to extinction. Having read Fever, I’m eager for the final book in the series, to see where DeStefano takes this and what kinds of thoughts she’ll be leaving me and other readers with at the conclusion.