Lauren DeStefano

HarperVoyager (2011)

ISBN: 978 0 00 738698 7

Reviewed by Jason Nahrung


It can be a fine line between clever misdirection and a pervasive atmosphere of bullshit, and I can’t help but feel that in her debut novel, Wither, Lauren DeStefano has failed to cross that line. From the very first scene, I could feel her land of make believe tumbling down, logic brick by logic brick. Ordinarily, that would’ve meant a quick flick of the novel across the room and a move on to something more captivating. But with Wither, I felt compelled to read on, enticed by nothing more than curiosity about how DeStefano was going to deconstruct her implausible creation.

A dream? Now that would be worthy of a wall toss. Perhaps her narrator is caught in some kind of artificial reality? After all, Rhine does think that Chris Columbus was the first man to circumnavigate the globe. But then, maybe that’s just an indictment of the US education system. It’s even worse in Rhine’s time. The problem is, if you’re setting out to reveal that the world is not what either your narrator purposefully misleads you into thinking it is, or actually what they mistakenly believe it to be, then you have to throw your reader a bone. You have to convince them that you will honour their trust with a believable, and traceable, reveal that will reward their suspension of disbelief. And at no stage does DeStefano engender in me that trust. Which means, regardless of whether the world building here is fair dinkum sloppy or a purposeful artifice, the story has failed.

The Columbus gaffe is one thing. Rhine’s belief that North America is the most technologically advanced continent is another that, well, some people believe that now, don’t they? But this stuff about the whole world bar North America being destroyed in a world war? The polar ice caps being ‘vapourised’? America being able to regain its self sufficiency by building sheet metal works in Manhattan high rises? This book is more a wet dream of the Tea Party than the credible dystopia that it’s marketed as. It’s salt in the wounds that very little of this back story actually makes an impact on this narrative.

Faith in Wither is further hampered by its narrator, who tells her story in the first person and present tense. It’s a tricky voice, and one that slips away on DeStefano at one stage, which is a shame given the overall competence of her prose. Rhine, while beautifully written on the page – as are the remainder of the cast, a not-quite-saving grace – simply isn’t that interesting. The book opens with the line, “I wait”, and that sets Rhine’s standard operating procedure for the duration.

The sixteen-year-old has been kidnapped from her Manhattan home and believes herself to have been taken somewhere in hurricane- and blizzard-prone Florida – there ends the discussion of the future environment – where she is sold into slavery as a trophy wife for Linden, a rich man’s son.

It should be scary stuff, but it isn’t. In fact, sexual slavery is shown to be not that bad at all, really, because you get pretty dresses and nice food and your husband still believes that no means no. Admittedly, he does have a thirteen-year-old with visions of wedded bliss to seduce, and his third wife is a prostitute, so for her servicing only one, and a polite one at that, john is something of a holiday. But still, given we’re on a clock here, you’d think he’d be just a little more interested in furthering his ambitions.

At no stage does our heroine feel threatened by the gormless Linden, so naïve he actually thinks his wives volunteered for this gig. No one, either in his household or in his broader society, bothers to set him straight on that score. Hm.

Rhine is meant to be a clever girl, and a curious one at that. Her parents were scientists who instilled in her a love of geography – she even knows about Japan, before the alleged war. But her parents never told her that she was named after a major river, and she never thought to ask. Similarly, her vaunted curiosity never leads her to try to discover her actual location, nor does it lead her to investigate her misgivings about Linden’s spooky old dad’s goings on in the basement lab. In fact the only time she ventures down there is either by accident or at the urging and arranging of others, and any detective work amounts to a quick snog with her favourite member of the help. She’s not quite Nancy Drew, our Rhine, but she sure does scrub up well. In fact, her only preparation for an escape attempt is to set the date. No money stashed, no spare clothes, no maps, no food, no water. In fact, if it weren’t for that reliable intervention from a third party that seems to inform her life in waiting, she wouldn’t even get through the gate. And when she does, she whiles away her first night of freedom at an all-night movie marathon. She’ll get warm and grab some nap time in the theatre and recommence her escape in the morning. After all, when you’re escaping from polite sex slavers, you don’t want to give yourself too much of a head start. Not that you need one, when the first boat you try to steal happens to be eminently thievable.

So why is Rhine being held captive in luxury? Well, it turns out that a cure-all gene therapy has gifted one generation with wondrous good health, but cursed the generations that follow with a built-in deadline: girls die at 20, boys at 25. Sperm is favoured over wombs – that’s another quandary for book 2 or 3 to resolve. What this means for society is that grandparents and orphanages are in high demand. So high in fact that orphans are prowling the streets of Manhattan, freezing to death for want of a place to stay. Not so down in Florida, where the high society life continues unabated, and this idea of kidnapped women as wives is not even the elephant in the room.

So why are women being kidnapped when there are orphanages apparently teeming with eager young things happy to breed in return for a comfortable life? Good question. See book 2 or 3 for the answer. There, you might also find out why slavers are happy to, allegedly, shoot the stock that the first buyer doesn’t want. You might find out why, if it’s really all about genetics and the quest for a cure for the time bomb, the selection process at the back of the slavers’ van amounts to the measuring of the girls’ hips and a visual inspection of their teeth, with the real testing being saved for back at the basement lab.

It’s an ugly, overly romanticised vision of the sex trade, some kind of Pretty Woman rip off and possible marriage analogy that falls way short: it is more insulting the more you think about it. There is no real threat to Rhine, no suspense, no real discomfort that a good hot bath can’t cure.

Of course, all these misgivings – there are others, but enough’s enough for one rant – might be answered in the books to follow, but honestly, why would you bother to find out?

Wither is something of a lost opportunity given the talents of its author. Had it not been weighed down with its implausible dystopian aspects and been written as a simpler romance, which is where the strength lies, it would have been far easier to swallow.