My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’ve had this book on my shelf since Christmas, and finally got around to reading it last week. I was intrigued by the premise as it sounded similar to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which I enjoyed reading at university.
The novel is set in a future in which a virus causes men to die at the age of twenty-five, and women at twenty. At sixteen, the main character Rhine Ellery has only four years left to live, and she intends to spend them with her twin brother, Rowan. Since her parents were murdered they have been living together in a barricaded house, protecting each other from the world of poverty and crime outside. But one day Rhine is kidnapped and sold as a bride to a man named Linden, along with two other girls. The story follows her captivity and escape attempts, and the strange things going on in the house. At first she hates her husband for robbing her of her freedom and being responsible for the other girls who were killed in the back of the van on the way here. She avoids being intimate with him, although he tries it on a number of times and impregnates his youngest wife, Cecily, who is only thirteen years old. It is quite sickening to read about her pregnancy, and the way the wives are kept there like slaves or baby-making machines.
But Rhine soon comes to realise that her young husband is just as much of a prisoner in the house as she is- he is manipulated by his controlling and sinister father, Housemaster Vaughn, who reveals himself as the real villain of the piece. Linden knows no other way of life and is deluded about what goes on in the house. He believes he scattered his wife Rose’s ashes in the orange grove, but really his father has been dissecting her corpse in the basement to try to find a cure for the virus, and although he was told that their son was stillborn, there are hints that Vaughn may have lied to him about that too. Linden becomes more of a sympathetic character as the novel progresses. He seems to genuinely care for Rhine, despite not appreciating her rights to freedom, and he is ignorant of where she and his other wives came from. He is naive and vulnerable, still grieving for Rose. Rhine’s sister wife, Cecily, is similarly blinkered. She is so young and innocent and ready to embrace this strange marriage and bear Linden’s children. At times she is unlikeable, rude and ignorant but I sympathised with her as she didn’t know any better, and gradually she seems to come to realise that this life is not so perfect.
Destefano cleverly and realistically portrays Rhine’s mixed feelings-longing for escape yet feeling guilty towards Linden and afraid of being caught, hating and mistrusting her sister wives yet caring for them too. There is also romance between her and Gabriel, a young servant working at the house. He really cares about her but they try to keep their friendship as a secret, afraid that Vaughn will find out and punish them. She wants him to come with her when she escapes, but he is almost so used to this life that he can’t imagine what freedom will be like. Eventually though, she does convince him to escape with her and the book ends with them sailing out to sea, heading back to Manhattan to find Rhine’s brother and discover what awaits them as free people.
Overall the novel was very thought-provoking and made me question the reasons behind a lot of my own values, and what exactly is justifiable in certain situations. It did remind me a lot of The Handmaid’s Tale, and would be valuable to student’s studying the themes of feminism and the representation of women in literature, although I would warn parents of young teenagers that they may want to discuss the sexual aspect of the book with their children to make sure they understand about women’s rights in this respect. I very much look forward to reading the sequel, Fever, to discover if Rhine and Gabriel can find a way to cure the virus and achieve happiness.