Wither is the first book in the Chemical Garden Trilogy by Lauren DeStefano. I’ll admit I was skeptical when I first read the summary on the back of the book: one generation’s attempts to stop aging have backfired. The First Generation succeeded and will live nearly forever, but their children will not. In any subsequent generations, men only live to age 25, women to 20, before succumbing to an uncurable virus. Teenage girls are kidnapped and sold into polygamous marriages, with the intention of creating enough new children to keep the human race alive and to experiment on, to find a cure.
And this is a YA book? I wondered how this book was going to handle such dark themes, and worried that it was going to turn into one of those bullshit books where the kidnapped victim ends up falling in love with her captor. But I was absolutely wrong. DeStefano has done an amazing job with this book. It’s dark, don’t get me wrong. It’s very dark and does deal with some pretty frightening themes. However, I found myself totally enthralled by this book. Our narrator, Rhine, is separated from her twin brother Rowan when she is kidnapped by men who provide wives to wealthy men. She is then bought and forced into a polygamous marriage along with two other girls. Once married, they live inside a luxurious mansion, where they have everything they could ever want – except their freedom.
The main relationship in the book is actually between Rhine, and her two sister-wives, Jenna and Cecily. Each girl is a different age: Jenna is 19 and about to die, Rhine is 16 and is hell-bent on escaping, and Cecily is only 13 and thinks that being a wife is a luxurious and desirable way to spend her short life. Despite their differences, the three girls really do become like sisters and the most poignant scenes are the ones where it’s just the three of them. Sometimes you’ll be reminded that they are really just children, when they’re jumping on the trampoline or eating ice cream together, but later you’ll be reminded what a terrible situation they’re in as they discuss the consummation of their marriages or grieve over a dying sister-wife.
Though Rhine initially hates her husband, Linden, she comes to realize that he is almost as much a victim as the girls are. Though he certainly has not been kidnapped from his home and forced into marriage, he thinks that his brides have come willingly and he never forces or coerces Rhine even though it’s supposed to be their duty to produce children. He’s not without fault – he does have sex with Jenna and even little Cecily, which Rhine judges him harshly for. Cecily is just a child, after all, but even Linden is hardly an adult himself. But he doesn’t understand the reality of the world they live in, because his father has controlled and brainwashed him. It’s kind of an interesting way to look at male privilege. Linden isn’t really the victim; he didn’t cause things to be the way they are or act maliciously. But even though he was ignorant of it, he caused these three girls a lot of pain and suffering. I like that the book presents him as a character who is not entirely complicit or even aware of what’s going on, but who is not innocent, either. The real villain is Linden’s father, who strives to control everyone and may even be responsible for some deaths.
And what of Rhine herself? I wasn’t sure if I liked her at first. Like Katniss in The Hunger Games, Rhine is wary of others and slow to warm up to. She’s used to relying only on herself and her brother. But despite all her talk about fighting and escaping in the beginning, she decides that she’ll try to win favor with Linden and become his favorite, so that he might take her on outings with him and give her more opportunities to run away. It seemed like a lot of talk and no action at first, but it turns out that Rhine is just as clever and charming as Katniss, although she’s more in tune with her feelings and less stand-offish around others. Before long, I loved Rhine and her absolute refusal to give up hope.
Wither is an excellent book and I think it will be a big success next year. It’s definitely a step above many other YA series and will draw in teen readers and adult readers alike. I would recommend it to any fans of The Handmaid’s Tale or The Hunger Games.
Wither will be published on March 22, 2011. I received an advance reader from Simon & Schuster to review.