My Withered Heart
Wither is exactly the kind of book I would never imagine myself enjoying. But Lauren DeStefano wove some sort of dark charm around my mind and my heart, and I swallowed this hook, line, and sinker. This may also have something to do with her witty Tweets and adorable cats, but I doubt the cats had anything major to do with this book.
Aside, cats of the world hiss: "Aha, she has fallen into our trap!"
Despite my better judgment, I enjoyed this. DeStefano's prose is achingly beautiful, and she very cleverly leaves the most gut-wrenching aspects of her world simmering just below the surface.
Rhine Ellery lived in hiding with her twin brother Rowan after the death of their parents. This isn't the usual "conveniently dead parents" syndrome that I encounter far too often in YA books, especially fantasy or dystopian sci-fi. In her world, all the men die at 25 and the women at 20. Welcome to the future of humanity.
In the quest for eternal youth and health, scientists developed an antidote to aging and sickness. The First Generation born enjoyed this until they discovered that their children's lifespans were drastically reduced. And no, you don't just get to quietly go in your sleep. Their bodies destroy themselves from the inside out. Man went back to the Garden of Eden to remake himself with chemicals, and this is the result.
Rich males take multiple wives, hoping to produce enough humans to live until a cure can be found to reverse the effects of the original cure. Girls are rounded up by squads sent by the rich families, and then chosen to be the brides of governors and other ruler-type people. Rhine has been very careful, but one day, she goes to a job interview and ends up in the back of a van with twenty other girls instead. Out of the van, only she and a handful of others are chosen; the rest are shot. She is purchased by Governor Linden to be one of his new wives.
After being married in a three-to-one marriage the next evening, Rhine finds herself unexpectedly, you know, married. This is something I legitimately have nightmares about--being forced to marry someone I don't love--so maybe that's why this book intrigued me so much. Rhine hates her life in this prison, but she also realizes that it's the entire system that's messed up, not just her husband and his father, Housemaster Vaughn. Well, Vaughn is definitely more than just "messed up"--I'd go with terms like "menacing," "amoral," and "vindictive. He's like the Chancellor Palpatine to the confused young Anakin Skywalker.
It will be a very, very long time before I can get through a book without relating it to Star Wars in some way. Hooray!
Now, most people reading this are going "EW! EW EW EW! Not cool!" And when we find out that Rhine's younger sister-bride, Cecily, is only 13, that's statutory rape right there. Cecily, oddly enough, dreams of being the wife of one of these rich men. She wants the status and the clothes and the chocolates--everything she never had in the orphanage. Rhine and Jenna, the elder sister-bride, are horrified that such a young one would be taken and expected to bear children. Indeed, Linden does sleep with Cecily and gets her pregnant. Jenna remains aloof, while Rhine realizes she's been chosen because of her striking resemblance to Linden's dead first wife, Rose.
She befriends one of the servants, Gabriel, and soon earns as much trust as she can from the staff. The things she learns shatter her view of this perfect prison: it is a charnel house as much as it is her gilded cage. She's playing a game with a dangerous predator.
Although we, as outsiders, might condemn Rhine for actually enjoying having a hot bath, or pretty clothes, or delicious food to eat, consider her life, and the life the majority of humans have had to become accustomed to. Living in an abandoned house with Rowen, she didn't have the luxury of sleeping in a bed. She had to chase off orphans who came around begging for food because there wasn't enough for the two of them as it was. So of course she's dazzled by what Linden and his family offer her.
"But what about the rape? The polygamy? The manipulation?" you cry. I can't explain why she tolerates, much less has some feelings for Linden. However, Rhine seems like the kind of person who plays the long game. She realizes that running away won't work, so she has to stay in Linden's favor until a more suitable escape opportunity presents itself. As for the rest, it's certainly not condoned. I have a feeling some readers wish that Rhine would loudly protest at every opportunity about the immorality and just plain ickiness of it all, but remember: she is trying to survive. That doesn't excuse the behavior, but we cannot expect every book heroine to go rampaging around her world and POOF! change it all back to normal.
The actual scary parts of the book--experimentation, childbearing at a young age, and polygamy--are briefly described, but not laid out for the world to see. We are expected to imagine the horrors ourselves, and I have often found that my own mind can come up with concepts uniquely frightening to me just as well as a novelist can. Sometimes, these things are more effective left unsaid. The reader knows only as much as Rhine--which is to say, not a lot!--and the mysteries of that basement are too unsettling to dwell on for long.
I liked the ending, and I wish that DeStefano had left it at that. I won't be reading the rest of the trilogy because it seems to veer off in a strange direction, and I prefer to keep the uncertainty of Rhine's fate to myself.
I cannot recommend this on world-building alone (lots of holes there), or on plot, or on characters, but there is something there, a sprig of charm, watered by lovely prose, that might just wind its way around your heart as it did with mine.