In the not-too-distant future, because of genetic engineering, every human is a ticking time bomb. Males only live to age twenty-five, and females only live to age twenty. To keep the population from dying out, girls are kidnapped and sold into polygamous marriages. When sixteen-year-old Rhine is taken, she enters a world of wealth and privilege that both entices and terrifies her. She has everything she ever wanted – except freedom. With the help of Gabriel, a servant Rhine is growing dangerously attracted to, Rhine attempts to escape before it is too late.
I know I’m late to the party by reviewing a book that was published almost a year ago, but with the release of Fever, the second book in this trilogy, just around the corner (February 21, 2012), it seemed somehow fitting. I truthfully didn’t know what to expect when I recently acquired this book. If nothing else, I figured it would be a good read for my 13-year-old daughter. After she proceeded to tear through it in a matter of days, and could hardly talk about anything else at the dinner table every night, I decided to give it a try. After all, she hadn’t been this excited about a book since The Hunger Games, so I figured it had to be pretty good! I certainly wasn’t disappointed.
On the surface, this is the story of a young girl, Rhine, who is kidnapped away from her twin brother in New York and sold into marriage to a young man named Linden in Florida. She becomes one of three ‘sister-wives’, purchased for the express purpose of replacing Linden’s first wife, Rose, who is dying from a deadly virus that claims every woman at the age of twenty and every man that the age of twenty-five. Rhine and the other wives are expected to produce children for their husband, and although they live in the lap of luxury, they are virtual prisoners in their new home. At the same time, Linden’s father, Headmaster Vaughn, races to find a cure for the virus that has killed every generation of descendents since his generation, the ‘first generation’.
The real story runs much deeper, though. It’s about love, loss and female empowerment. Rhine refuses to consummate her marriage to Linden and begins a clandestine, though chaste, romance with a servant, Gabriel. DeStefano does an outstanding job of uplifting what could otherwise have been a rather grim and depressing tale, by showing how love can flourish under the unlikeliest of circumstances. Likewise, she redefines the concept of family with the strong bond that Rhine develops with her fellow sister-wives. Rhine has lost much in her young life. Her scientist parents were killed under suspicious circumstances when she was still a child. She has been taken away from her twin brother, Rowan, her only remaining blood relative, and she has lost her freedom. Yet, despite the adversity she faces, Rhine rises above the hand that fate has dealt her, and opens her heart to love and friendship. DeStefano turns what could have been a total catfight between four women (including Rose, Linden’s first wife) competing for the affection of one man, into a truly inspiring reflection on the power that women can yield when they come together. The bond that they form is just as strong and unbreakable as that forged in blood.
We also discover early on that Rhine is no shrinking violet, and that she will not just blindly succumb to her fate. She doesn’t wait for a knight in shining armor to save her from the horror of her situation – she saves herself, and her would-be-lover Gabriel, as well. It’s this indomitable strength of spirit exhibited by Rhine that carries the whole story. While her sister-wives fall into their expected, compliant roles, Rhine exudes defiance at every turn. Not only does she shun Linden from their marriage bed, she also somehow manages to retain her own identity in a society that devalues women.
One of the things that surprised me most about this book was that I actually wound up finding Linden to be quite a sympathetic character. I wanted to hate him, I really did, but eventually I realized that he’s actually as much a victim of circumstance as his wives are. He’s naïve and a little weak, but he can hardly be blamed, since he has been insulated from reality for so long by his father. He’s as much a prisoner as the other members of his household, but he’s also kind, compassionate and fair.
The truly terrifying figure in this book is Linden’s father, Headmaster Vaughn. DeStefano does a masterful and subtle job of creating a chilling villain. Although he never does or says anything overtly evil, there is such an air of menace about him that it isn’t difficult to imagine him doing all sorts of horrible things in his basement laboratory in his quest to find a cure for the virus.
Wither is a romantic, suspenseful and ultimately uplifting read. I’m dying to find out what happens next in Fever. If Wither is any indication, it’s sure to be full of twists, turns and surprises!