Wither by Lauren DeStefano
Wither has one of the more depressing premises of all the YA postapocalyptic dystopias I’ve ever read, and that’s saying something. Everyone has been genetically modified, but they didn’t think through the possible consequences–when they had children, those children only lived to age 25 for boys and 20 for girls. The main character, 16-year-old Rhine, is abducted and taken away from her twin brother to spend the last 4 years of her life as a wife in a polygamous marriage. Her husband, Linden, is actually kind of sweet and innocent, if you ignore the fact that he knocks up his 12-year-old wife. Linden’s father Vaughn is the real bad guy, the one who bought wives for his son from kidnappers, who’s doing mysterious, unethical experiments to try to cure what’s killing everyone.
From the beginning, Rhine is plotting to escape. She becomes Linden’s favorite wife, and he seems to be in love with her, but that has no effect on her plans. She kisses a serving boy, and he becomes her partner in planning to leave. If there is a love story, though, it’s Rhine’s relationships with her “sister-wives.” The way these young women occasionally undermine each other, but mostly support each other feels both realistic and hopeful.
The way the world of Wither brings together elaborate material riches with spiritual poverty and the malaise of anticipating an early death is its most interesting aspect. The society is unable to build anything lasting because no one reaches a productive middle age. The house where they all live is suffocating and claustrophobic, though huge and ornate. There is a sense of mystery as the reader is led to wonder why everyone is dying before age 26 and what Vaughn could be up to. The tone is often mournful, but matter-of-fact, as Rhine totally accepts that she will not live to see adulthood; it is simply the way things are. DeStafano paid proper attention to her language in writing; her narrator Rhine is reflective and strategic, always observing.
I’m looking forward to the next book in the series, Fever, which came out earlier this year.