Friday, 2 September 2011

Book Review | Wither by Lauren DeStefano

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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 she trusts, Rhine attempts to break free, in the limited time she has left.


Another day, another dystopia.

Not that I'm complaining! The end of the world and I are practically bosom buddies, we spend so much time in one another's company. And for my money, all apocalypses are equal... except some are of course more equal than others. Wither by Lauren DeStefano, the first book in The Chemical Garden trilogy, is one of those - and better than most.

Needless to say, the future in Wither is neither bright, nor particularly Orange. Man, ever the innovator, has in one fell swoop laid a terrible genetic plague upon the entire human race, such that men and women each have a strict Best Before Date: come hell or high water, all men die at age 25, while women, to a one, can only count on 20 years. In this time and this place:

It has become a form of escapism to visit a world in which people live a long time. What was once real and natural has become a fantasy. "There are lots of love stories here," she says. "They either end happily or everyone dies." She laughs, but it sounds more like a sob. "What is is there, right?" (p.86)

Some scientists still strive to undo what horrors their predecessors long since wrought upon our DNA (presumably by accident... though I have my suspicions) but middle America at least has made a go of this new status quo, instituting a system whereby men may take multiple wives - by force if necessary - to make multiple babies with, in order, of course, that the species survive until a cure is discovered.

Rhine Ellery is one such unwilling bride. Stolen away from the meager existence she shared with her brother, Rowan, to become one of Linden Ashby's three new wives - replacements for Rose, the love of Linden's life - Rhine does not, unlike her sister wives Jenna and Cecily, go quietly into the great good night of this life of privileged imprisonment. "My sunrises may be limited," she swears, "but I will not view all the rest of mine as Linden Ashby's wife." (p.57)

So it is that Rhine vows to plan and execute a daring escape from the grounds she has been sentenced to. Her best shot at freedom, she reasons, is by earning the trust of her captors: her new husband first and foremost among them. So she'll be a good girl, to a point... and then, when Linden least expects it, she'll run back to Rowan.

Yet "not everything in Linden Ashby's world is as it seems." (p.82) Not even Linden Ashby, for that matter, and in the time Rhine spends on his estate, she finds herself pulled towards two poles, worlds apart: a kind and generous house-servant called Gabriel, who brings Rhine sweets in secret, and also, to a certain extent, Linden himself, who proves a mournful and surprisingly understanding young gentleman.

So there we have it. Linden and Gabriel: our Peeta and Gale for the duration. Which is not to rip Wither a new one; in fact DeStefano's self-assured debut is one of the first dystopian YA fantasies I've read since The Hunger Games whose marketing materials have not drawn such predictable parallels. Instead, the publicity stuffs have suggested Wither has more in common with The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood -- and if you squint a bit... sure, the lineage is there.

But since comparisons have been invited, let me suggest a more apposite one, and say that the first act of The Chemical Garden is more like Logan's Run by way of Big Love with, yes, a whiff of The Hunger Games about it. We would, however, do well to remember that about Suzanne Collins' sensational trilogy too there were whiffs of innumerable other things.

All of which said, Linden and Gabriel are rather carbon copies of Peeta and Gale, from their class-oriented characteristics on down to the dynamic between each of them and Rhine. Nor is Rhine herself a particularly sympathetic or interesting protagonist - she's all a muddle about pretty much everything, and for no good reason (except in service of the narrative as DeStefano sees it) she obfuscates certain essential details about her situation. Nevertheless, given her unfortunate situation, you'd have to be hard of heart indeed to root against her in any way, shape or form.

In terms of character, then, Wither is a trifle disappointing. The world, too, seems something of a non-starter: though in this case only because the reader sees so little of it, since the escape attempt mooted in every synopsis of DeStefano's debut I've seen takes - let me tell you - a long, long while to get off the ground.

But I wouldn't have had it any other way. Moreover, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Wither to anyone with an interest in your friend and mine, the end of the world as we know it. And that's as much of a surprise to me as I imagine it will be to you, given all I've asserted about this book's shortcomings. But there's a reasonably simple reason for that: namely, the atmosphere. The tension inherent in the premise is terrific, and so thickly layered you'd have difficulty slicing it with a saw, far less the knife usually used for such purposes; hanging always in the air, however convivial it sometimes seems, is the threat of one awful abuse or another, and Wither, though it remains YA-friendly throughout, goes to some fair dark places.

Wither is a chilling, thrilling first novel, tense and intelligent, focused rather than ranging in the mode of so many other dystopias, and if its characters are as yet somewhat simplistic, and its world unfortunately underdeveloped thus far, take heart: there are two more volumes of The Chemical Garden to come, and I would wager Lauren DeStefano has a few more tricks up her sleeve. I'll be looking forward to hearing all about them in Fever, next year.


by Lauren DeStefano

UK Publication: August 2011, Harper Voyager
US Publication: March 2011, Simon & Schuster

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  1. Hmm, the plot summary has me a little confused - how old is Linden, and how old is his father? "Linden’s eccentric father is bent on finding an antidote to the genetic virus that is getting closer to taking his son..." - this makes it sound like Linden's in his 20s, which would make his father well over 25...

  2. @Jonas - You make a fair point, sir. Happy to clarify!

    Linden's father is in fact well over 25: he's one of the surviving old folks from before the plague, genetically modified to last longer than a normal human lifetime. Wither has it that these experiments, into curing cancer and age-related wear and tear at the genetic level, are in part the reason the plague happened in the first place.

  3. I loved this book. Im a picky read. I have a hard time finding books i find interesting and that keep my attention. But this book seriously got under my skin and made me crave to know more. It kept me up at night reading untill i fell asleep. I did not want to put it down!You become lost in this erie but beleivable futuristic world and the characters. Its not your typical romance novel type thing.

  4. I Loved it. I can't wait to read the next one!! Give this series a chance, you won't be disappointed.