Author: Lauren DeStefano
Series: The Chemical Garden #1
Cover Art: Ali Smith
Genre: Dystopian YA | Excerpt: Yes
Source: Publisher | Reviewed by: Abigail
Kissing. References to sex, polygamy, prostitution. A 13 year old has sex with a 20 year old. No description but the effects on her body are alluded to.
What if you knew exactly when you would die?
Thanks to modern science, every human being has become a ticking genetic time bomb—males only live to age twenty-five, and females only live to age twenty. In this bleak landscape, young girls are kidnapped and forced into polygamous marriages to keep the population from dying out.
When sixteen-year-old Rhine Ellery is taken by the Gatherers to become a bride, she enters a world of wealth and privilege. Despite her husband Linden’s genuine love for her, and a tenuous trust among her sister wives, Rhine has one purpose: to escape—to find her twin brother and go home.
But Rhine has more to contend with than losing her freedom. Linden’s eccentric father is bent on finding an antidote to the genetic virus that is getting closer to taking his son, even if it means collecting corpses in order to test his experiments. With the help of Gabriel, a servant Rhine is growing dangerously attracted to, Rhine attempts to break free, in the limited time she has left.
Wow am I loving dystopian YA right now. First The Hunger Games trilogy, then DELIRIUM, and now WITHER. All follow a young girl living in a world that is horrifying to imagine because it isn’t hard to imagine. It feels real and even terribly plausible: Making kids kill each other on TV, lobotomizing everyone so they become incapable of love, or the future generation of designer babies who die at 20/25 years old.
What I found especially fascinating about WITHER was the story it chose to tell. It’s not when everyone first realizes the dire consequences of their quest for human perfection, its not even really on the front lines where scientists are trying to fix their mistake before humanity dies out. Rather we follow a sixteen year old girl who is grabbed off the street and sold into a polygamous marriage with two other child brides. The world outside her gilded cage essentially ceases to exist, although we do learn bits and pieces about what happened and continues to happen around the world. WITHER is the story that takes place two generations after everything went wrong. When no one even balks at the idea of polygamy. Girls as young as thirteen are snatched up and sold to rich men and no one objects. Not really. The last generation of healthy humans are beginning to die from old age and their children have all died, their grandchildren roam the streets selling themselves for food and stealing when they can’t. The lucky ones are sold as wives or servants.
Rhine is the ‘lucky’ one in WITHER. I found her waffling emotions to be genuine and still frustrating at times. Sometimes she seems to suffer from Stockholm syndrome when it came to her husband Linden. Sure he was a quiet, mostly fragile character, but whenever Rhine would soften towards him I wanted to scream at her what he’d done. It never took Rhine long to remind herself, but even those momentarily lapses when she let herself genuinely care for him, not an act for her escape, were maddening. He married a thirteen year old girl! A stupid, selfish, insolent girl, but still a child. I don’t know how Rhine could stomach the sight of Linden knowing that there are nights when he’s having sex with a child next door.
Speaking of sex. While there are no descriptions of sex in this book, the sister wives talk about it a lot. Eager Cecily who studies Kama Sutra books so she’ll know how to please her husband, Jenna is older and shrugs at sex. She accustomed to doing what she needs to to get by. It’s expected that Linden will simply avail himself of his wives whenever he chooses. Jealousy occasionally erupts between the sister wives, mostly from Cecily, but they still don’t ever think of objecting. Not all of them even want to escape. What would they escape to? The world would consider their lot enviable.
Have you ever read a book that was so good it made you uncomfortable at times? Because it felt too real? To unsettling? That’s WITHER. It’s like THE SECRET GARDEN meets Sister Wives, the latest in a string of superb dystopian books. The writing is clean and elegant. The characters are written in such a way that it’s almost impossible to paint any one completely good or bad (with one big exception). They will each arouse pity one moment, anger the next, and somehow sympathy after that. Hope and despair are the emotions woven through every chapter. There are no easy answers, no obvious solutions. The world is a mess and the survivors have had to create a new morality in order to continue the human race. It’s equal parts deplorable and fascinating. WITHER is everything I hoped and feared it would be and I can’t wait for the next book.