Wither (The Chemical Garden #1) by Lauren DeStefano (2011)
YA Fiction | Dystopia
“By age sixteen, Rhine Ellery has four years left to live. She can thank modern science for this genetic time bomb. A botched effort to create a perfect race has left all males with a lifespan of 25 years, and females with a lifespan of 20 years. Geneticists are seeking a miracle antidote to restore the human race, desperate orphans crowd the population, crime and poverty have skyrocketed, and young girls are being kidnapped and sold as polygamous brides to bear more children.
When Rhine is kidnapped and sold as a bride, she vows to do all she can to escape. Her husband, Linden, is hopelessly in love with her, and Rhine can’t bring herself to hate him as much as she’d like to. He opens her to a magical world of wealth and illusion she never thought existed, and it almost makes it possible to ignore the clock ticking away her short life. But Rhine quickly learns that not everything in her new husband’s strange world is what it seems. Her father-in-law, an eccentric doctor bent on finding the antidote, is hoarding corpses in the basement. Her fellow sister wives are to be trusted one day and feared the next, and Rhine is desperate to communicate to her twin brother that she is safe and alive. Will Rhine be able to escape–before her time runs out?
Together with one of Linden’s servants, Gabriel, Rhine attempts to escape just before her seventeenth birthday. But in a world that continues to spiral into anarchy, is there any hope for freedom?”
pooled ink Review:
I finished this book absolutely certain of only one thing: I had no idea how I felt. I don’t know what I expected but it was somehow both exactly what I assumed and absolutely nothing at all that I might have guessed.
Usually when I read a book I finish it knowing whether I liked it or not. It’s generally pretty clear to me. With this book however I spent a few days trying to figure out what exactly I thought and wondering why it was so confusing to figure out. Well…here’s my attempt…
As you saw with my star-rating I clearly didn’t not like this book and it’s true. I knew at the end that I somehow sort of liked it…yet felt very confused by that… Oh my gosh I’m still struggling to put it into words haha. Wither contains expected tropes for its genre and yet is unlike any other book I’ve ever read and that genuinely surprised me. It’s a YA dystopian book so I figured it’d fall within the usual plot outline especially since this is a traditionally published book and as many of us bloggers know traditional publishers like to play things safe 95% of the time. Well this book was nothing like I expected and a part of me is honestly surprised a traditional publisher would have taken the risk to publish it. That being said, I’m not sure all of its risks paid off.
Wither is an oddity and yet there is something in the writing so that I can’t look away.
This book is about a dystopian future America featuring a 16-year old girl (so yes in that regard we’re firmly within comfortable/typical waters). Apparently humans figured out a cure for cancer which evolved into cures for just about everything and they decided to vaccinate/genetically modify their babies to produce a stronger generation (or something like that). And it worked! Until it didn’t. That first generation is strong, resilient, and a mighty success but their children and each generation after have become plagued with a genetic disorder/virus where females die at age 20 and males at age 25 and no one can figure out how to stop it.
The population is shrinking at a terrifying rate and to combat the end of the human race the wealthy purchase brides forming polygamous marriages with girls ages 13+ in order to try and produce as many babies as possible and keep the human race afloat until a cure can be found. Girls are offered, volunteered, bought, kidnapped, forced, coerced, etc. into these marriages where they’re kept in an illusion of comfort and care but unable to ever leave their gilded cage. Rhine, the main character, is kidnapped, thrown into a van, and chosen along with two other girls to be a bride while the rejected girls are executed as unwanted waste. Throughout the story she hates what the world has become and her singular goal is to return to her twin brother.
Pretty wild, right? I mean, not only is that not typical for a U.S. YA dystopian storyline but it seems awful risky to publish a book where a 13-year old sold into marriage becomes pregnant not a few months later (which is just gross. I mean, I know the world in the book is desperate and that child brides are a thing even today but blehhhh she’s a child). While such things are known in other parts of the world, the U.S. likes to stay away from such taboo topics. So yeah, on one hand I was uncomfortable, surprised, but mostly I was oddly intrigued.
Also unlike most YA dystopian books I’ve read, Rhine never truly falls in love with her captor. Does she unearth secrets about him? Yes. Does he genuinely fall in love with her? He truly does. Does she grow to care about him in some capacity? Well yeah eventually. And yet not once does she forget in her heart that there is a whole world of freedom beyond those elaborate walls and a brother left alone and wondering in the world. The dynamic between Rhine and her husband, Linden, was so intricate and interesting, and very well done. The more she learns the more complex it becomes because their roles are not so black-and-white as they first appear. They come from different backgrounds and perspectives and beliefs, and while it’s true Rhine’s situation is unjust, Linden is actually a genuinely good person. Impossible to believe at first but by the end we find that it’s true. Linden the monster is actually almost as blameless as one can get in this situation. (I won’t explain how of course because that would be spoilers!)
This being said he is totally useless, clueless, and although he is kind I just wasn’t swooning over him and neither was Rhine. Rhine completes the book’s “love triangle” with a servant in the mansion named Gabriel but although he did understand Rhine’s situation much more than Linden he was weirdly equally content and useless as Linden. Linden might not know better but Gabriel should and yet felt content to remain in the mansion ignoring the darker deeds going on behind closed doors…or in a creepy medical basement. Honestly I wish Rhine would just ditch both of them and go back to her brother who is the only male not completely useless in this book.
Linden plays an important role in the story of course but much of the plot and Rhine’s personal development actually centers around the sister wives. That relationship is a complicated one and as time goes on they each develop unique relationships with Linden and one another. Each one of them views the world, their new fate as wives, their sister-wives, and Linden very differently and the way these views collide truly helps to drive the plot. The intertwining story of these three strangers, Rhine (16), Cecily (13), & Jenna (18), brings an unexpected depth to the story that I loved.
This book is gritty and not nearly as whimsical as the cover. The plot is never overshadowed by any sort of romance plot (yay!) although there is the complicated relationship between Rhine and Linden as well as a small but important romantic subplot between Rhine and Gabriel. Her goal to escape and find her brother remains central from start to finish and yet her inevitable adaptation to her surroundings develops naturally and in a way that I believed and sort of appreciated actually. In fact, as odd as this book was I read it all in one day.
I honestly would never have picked up this book on my own because the cover makes it seem like it’s full of teenage romance and the description paints the picture of a strange premise with a love triangle. My library’s book club chose this as our next read so dutifully I read it and now I’m left puzzling out my feelings.
So much happens in this book – plot twists, character development, world-building, etc. – and yet it somehow manages to maintain a thoughtful undertone. Whether getting drunk while hanging onto Linden’s arm as a wife to flaunt or clutching a child’s hand while she screams giving birth, Rhine’s character provides an unexpected combination of desperation, companionship, acceptance, and rebellion. It would have been so easy for this book to have been utterly ridiculous or cliché and for Rhine to be, well, annoying, but it walks a narrow line and instead produces a book I’m still thinking about weeks later. Although granted, I do still think it had some ridiculous pitfalls…
My 5 Biggest Issues with the Plot:
- I have to be honest and say that the explanation for how the whole world was completely demolished, sunk into the sea, smashed to smithereens, and/or uninhabitable except North America seemed like such malarky haha. I didn’t buy it and I’d rather that whole backstory about WWIII was left out. The genetic/vaccination backstory I could get on board with but erasing the rest of the world had me laughing. So yeah, I could have lived without that part in the book (and it didn’t seem particularly necessary)
- Why would Linden’s first wife, Rose, have tried to escape? She grew up with Linden, they were childhood sweethearts, she wanted to marry him and truly loved him. So….why is it mentioned that she tried to escape through the air ducts before?
- I just can’t get on board with Linden’s childhood sweetheart dying (not a spoiler because she’s introduced to us as being on her last days) and then hopping right into bed with a thirteen-year old. Ugh so gross.
- WHY IS THERE NO INVESTIGATING. Mysterious deaths and illnesses, Jenna’s oddly extra heightened fear of Linden’s father (plus she insinuates she knows things about him/what he’s done that is never explained), the creepy medical basement, the “wet-nurse” that is never introduced and obviously not real, etc. SO MANY THINGS happen that raise red flags and yet NO ONE INVESTIGATES. They just think “Huh, that’s suspicious” and then keep on going with their day!
- (Semi-Spoiler) Furthermore, as much as Jenna and Rhine hated Linden (at first) and their situation, when it became clear that he had no idea the truth behind their forced situation WHY DID NEITHER OF THEM TELL HIM?????? He’s clearly a good guy and I’m sure if they’d helped fill in his oblivious little mind he would’ve helped them, or at least he might’ve, ya know? It almost makes me feel bad for Linden, so confused as to why these girls hate him so much lol.
- (Semi-spoiler) First, their escape plan wasn’t particularly well thought out but at least that seemed reasonable for a pair of 16-year olds. Secondly, if you get the chance to escape WHY PAUSE MID-ESCAPE TO WATCH A MOVIE IN THE MOVIE THEATRE FOR ZOMBIE FEST?????????? Seriously! It was “Run! We have to go! This is our only chance! If we’re caught I’ll be punished and you’ll be executed!” then suddenly “Oh wow, the city. Hey, it’s Zombiefest! Let’s watch a movie and warm up from the snow!” and finally “Well that was fun and normal-feeling, guess we’d better keep running before we’re caught and dragged back!” Silliness.
But other than that…I might actually want to re-read this book and push on to see what happens in the sequel. Or maybe I’ll just hop on the internet and read spoilers to get a summary of what happens haha
Really I think a LOT of this book’s problems could’ve been solved by writing it in alternating POVs. There are so many holes in the story that showing the situation from different perspectives and mindsets would have really truly helped it all make more sense. I think there were a lot of great ideas and twists in the story but the way it was put together felt more like a second-draft that needed to be further fleshed out to fully connect those ideas and twists.
Oh but the very very end is actually something I did like about this. (No spoilers, I promise!) It ends in such a way that is both hopeful and open-ended. There are more books in the series, but you could almost be content with just this one and let your mind fill in the dot dot dot how you wish.
Anyway, yeah, this was an unusual read for me (maybe you’ve read it or will read it and think it absolutely typical or unsurprising and ridiculous but within my current catalog of books read this is one that stands out) so I recommend it to you as well. I know I didn’t not like it but…did I like it? I’m still not 100% sure, my feelings remain infuriatingly ambiguous but it was definitely interesting. I want to know your thoughts on this one for sure!
Wither is beautiful, diabolical, unexpected, and so incessantly intriguing. A story that has slipped between the cracks against its competitors in the YA dystopian genre it deserves a bit of the spotlight for how well it makes one pause, gasp, react, and have you gripping the covers tightly desperate to see a way out. A premise so strange yet enticing it’s easy to lose track of time once you open to that first page.
Purchase Here: Wither
Similar Recommended Reads: Sowing by Angie Grigaliunas, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Angelfall by Susan Ee, Gilded Cage by Vic James, A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, Children of Icarus by Caighlan Smith, Of Beast and Beauty by Stacey Jay, The Paper Swan by Leylah Attar
Meet Lauren DeStefano!
Lauren Destefano earned her BA in English with a Concentration in Creative Writing from Albertus Magnus College in Connecticut in 2007.