Review: Wither

Wither by Lauren DeStefano. First book in The Chemical Garden Trilogy. Simon & Schuster. 2011. Review from ARC from ALA.

The Plot: Scientific advancements and genetic engineering created a perfect generation of children. As they grew and aged, they continued to be perfect.

The problem? Every generation after appears healthy, at first. Until the virus makes itself known. Then, they get sick and die. The death age for males is 25, for females is 20.

The result? A world full of older “first generation” adults, orphaned children, and young adults who know death is coming. It’s created a culture with extremes of poverty and wealth, with whispers of experiments being done to try to find a way to cure the virus, a world of polygamous marriages for the benefit of wealthy men anxious to see their family lines continue and to maximize their number of children before they die.

One way to meet the need for brides? Taking them. Kidnapping them. Stealing them.

For some, kidnapping is a rescue, a move from the cold, overcrowded, under-supplied orphanages.

For others, it means being torn from their families.

Rhine Ellery, 16, is one of the kidnapped brides. Rhine resolves to do whatever it takes to survive. To escape. To be reunited with her her twin brother, Rowan. She learns there may be worse things than being kidnapped.

The Good: I am fascinated by the world DeStefano has created. Imagine a world where, for fifty years, no child born has lived past 25 or 20. Rhine and Rowan were born to “first generation” parents (so, obviously, the genetic engineering also extended fertility); their parents were killed in an explosion and the twins have taken care of themselves, and each other, in the years since. Any child born to subsequent generations will see their parents die. What does that do to people? To a culture? For Rhine and Rowan, it creates a tight bond between the siblings.

Linden Ashby, Rhine’s 21 year old husband, is wealthy, and that wealth has isolated him from the harshness of the world. He lives in a mansion, with his rich first generation father and tons of servants. Rhine and two other girls are selected from a van full of kidnapped, traumatized girls. Linden not only doesn’t see the trauma; he also thinks they are there voluntarily and has no idea that the girls he rejects are shot and left on the side of the road. Part of me doesn’t believe that Linden could be so ignorant; part of me sadly realizes that happens with privileged people. They don’t see the poverty, the abuse, the truth. Some of Linden’s servants are children, orphans bought and sold. How can Linden not know? Because he’s been raised his whole life not to see what is in front of him and to believe he’s entitled to all he has.

Linden’s childhood sweetheart, and first wife, Rose, is 20 and dying. Linden’s rich and powerful father buys him three new brides. Rhine, who misses her brother. Jenna, 18, who is just as involuntarily a bride as Rhine. At 13, Cecily is an orphan who believes she is now living the fairy tale: a room of her own, clothes, good food, servants. Linden’s brides are on a locked floor, locked away from the world, birds in a cage. As I watched the Royal Wedding, I kept on thinking of how Wither was a twisted, nightmare version of the happily ever after fairy tale: here is your prince, your castle, your life of luxury. The price paid to be a princess is high.

Vaughn, Linden’s father, is not just rich and powerful; he’s also a doctor. He has lots of secrets, not all good. He’s trying to find a cure so his son Linden doesn’t die at 25. He’s willing to do anything. Including buying women for his son. To continue the fairy tale-ness of Wither, Vaughn has locked rooms in his basement. All the servants, all the brides, fear him. Linden, the spoiled, protected, indulged son, is the only one who doesn’t.

To “wither” is to become dry, to lose freshness. Rhine’s world is withering away as the young die; but it is also Rhine herself who risks withering away. She is kidnapped and locked away, with freedom to leave the floor, and then the house, earned slowly and over time.

Wither is the first in a trilogy. The main plot of Wither is wrapped up in such a way that I’m not quite sure what the next books will bring. Will it be more about Rhine? Will it be Rowan’s story? Or someone else’s?

I look forward to the other books in part because I have so many questions about this odd world. One of the servants at the Ashby house, on the bride floor, that plays a role in the story is Gabriel, a young man about Rhine’s age. Really, I thought, really? A floor of teen girls, locked up, and a hot young man is one of their attendants? Really? Maybe this society hasn’t quite sorted out how to do captured brides, and don’t realize that this is a bad idea of epic proportions. Or … maybe Vaughn knows exactly what he is doing and we’ll learn more in book two.

What else I’m eager to learn more about: what Vaughn knows, what he doesn’t know, what the reader knows about Vaughn. Vaughn is trying to get a cure. Only a little of what he does in the basement is shown, but it’s not good. By coincidence, Rhine’s dead parents? Geneticists. I’m putting two and two together and getting four and thinking this (along with Rhine’s having two different colored eyes) Means Something. The death-ages of 25, of 20 — why? What are they linked to? What, exactly, is the virus?