Wither (Chemical Garden #1)

WitherBy Lauren DeStefano

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Published: March 22, 2011
Genre: Young Adult Dystopian
Source: Publisher

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 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.

Goodreads Summary

Once in a while I read something I enjoy so much that I’m utterly stumped about what to write about it so that I don’t come across as an incoherent idiot who only knows a handful of words (awesome, incredible!).  I don’t read a lot of dystopia (and this probably could be classified as Dystopian Lite, which I think is going to put a lot of reviewers in either the love-it or disappointed-by-it camps) but this reminded me that I ought to be reading it more often.  This is easily among my top ten best novels of the past year.

Orphaned at a young age, Rhine is living a hardscrabble life with her twin brother Rowan when she’s grabbed by the Gatherers looking for wives for House Governor Linden.  She’s drugged and taken to his opulent estate, where she becomes one of his pampered sister wives, along with thirteen year-old Cecily and eighteen year-old Jenna.  Rhine finds out that they’ve been brought there to replace Linden’s first and only wife Rose, who’s dying.  Linden is in love with Rose, and Rhine resembles her a great deal.  When Rose dies, he comes to Rhine, who offers comfort only – she’s determined that she won’t be used for sex with him, but she’ll manipulate him in any way she can to find a way to escape.  As a year in the house with her sister wives passes, she becomes closer to both Linden and her server Gabriel and earns the scrutiny of Linden’s evil father, Housemaster Vaughn, who’ll do anything to keep her in the house.

I’ll get out of the way what didn’t work for me first, mostly because for me, it ended up being eclipsed by what did.  I also want to mention that for anyone looking for a lot of action in a dystopian, this probably won’t be up your alley – this is heavily character-driven, most of the story is set inside the estate and the action that does happen is in the last quarter-ish of the book.

I didn’t feel any significant emotional connection to Gabriel, Rhine’s server, companion and potential romantic interest.  I knew a lot of facts about him, but I didn’t have the investment with his character that I did with the sister wives and Linden.  His contact with Rhine seemed very dry and distant to me.  I hate to say it, but he seemed more brotherly than anything else.

I missed some of the contrast between the poor side of society and the rich that Linden lived in that might have given the story an even more powerful social statement.  Beyond some bits of things Rhine told Cecily and things from the beginning of the story, not a lot was shown about things from where Rhine and her twin Rowan lived.  I don’t know that I ever really understood the mechanics of the separations in the two societies – why one felt like Max Max while the other was ultra posh.

I think Housemaster Vaughn was underused.  He was a huge evil entity in the household, conducting nasty experiments on mysterious corpses in the basement, but the whole thing was left largely unexplored.  Maybe I watched too much Scooby Doo when I was a kid because I expected there to be more of the plot connected to it than there was.  I don’t really understand that much about the virus that killed Rose either – it seems like it will be important and there was a lot of time available to explain some of it, but nothing really happened with it.

Then there was what worked.  There were no details too small and it lent a lush, technicolor feel to the entire household.  Rose was obsessed with candy that turned her tongue colors and later it became a symbol of communication between Rhine and Gabriel.  Rhine’s maid Dierdre did her makeup and clothing and there were gorgeous descriptions of her artistry.  When Rhine went outdoors to swim or play in the autumn leaves, if I wasn’t distracted by anything else going on in the room, I could feel the slide of the water or the sharp edges of the cold, wet leaves.  There’s a comforting repetition of description of things that reappear often in the household so that they became familiar.  By the end of the book, even Linden’s gold teeth seemed charming.  The story is truly a sensory feast.

Rhine is a wonderfully messy, real character.  She contemplates lying to just about everyone at one point or another and doesn’t hesitate to manipulate Linden every chance she gets.  She doesn’t trust anyone in the house (rightly so) and doesn’t go out of her way to help her sister wives for the most part, even though she occasionally has almost maternal feelings for the absurdly immature Cecily and worries about Jenna, who vacillates between being withdrawn and suicidal and accepting her place in the household.  Linden adores her almost from the start.  Her resemblance to Rose helped, but then she manipulated it beyond that, giving him the things that no one else had in years: praise for his work, friendship (even if it was false) and affection (also mostly false for a while).

It’ll take me forever to say what I loved about the other characters, so I’ll limit myself to Linden.  He starts out as a villain – after all, he’s the reason the girls are kidnapped and they’re forced to marry him, are going to have to have sex with him and stay with him until they die.  Linden is something a little more and less.  He’s his father’s puppet, which makes him seem a little clueless and ought to have made him even less likable, but there was something about him that made me hope that I see him in the next book.  He seemed to genuinely love Rhine and I think there were things she saw in him that were good.

My Summary:  It’s probably only appropriate that I end with some rambling nonsense.  I know this is getting some comparisons to Matched, but if anyone out there is ah, as “retro” as I am, this had a little Logan’s Run in it for me (the movie, not the crappy series) too.  This really stands apart from anything else though – the pace of the story suits DeStefano’s lovely, lyrical writing.  Normally I get antsy for the second book in a series because it leaves me on a cliffhanger with a character – this didn’t end that way, but as soon as I closed the last page of this I immediately wanted the next book, just because it was so good I didn’t want it to be over.

My Rating:  A-  




  1. I'm definitely going to have to pick this up soon. It sounds so interesting. Maybe the author will get all the kinks worked out and the second book will be even better!

  2. This was so good! I tend to read a lot of romance stuff (shocker, huh), and this had barely any, but I was just absorbed in a way I'm not usually with YA or any kind of dystopia. The weird thing is, the way this ended, I don't know if the next book is going to be about Rhine. I almost think not. I'm afraid to speculate, lol.

  3. Great review, I felt almost exactly the same about Wither. There was significantly less action than I expected, but once you adjust your expectations, it's very good.I agree with you about Housemaster Vaughn and Gabriel, and I'm glad I'm not the only one who felt that way about them. Gabriel felt so…half-there, and I expected so much more from Vaughn and his experiments. With the ending, I wonder if we'll even see him again.I'm both cheerful and somewhat weary that I have absolutely no idea what the next book will be about. It's nice in the unpredictable aspect, but I hope DeStefano won't force some sort of Hunger-Games-esque action out of Rhine. It doesn't fit very well with Wither, you know?

  4. I'm wondering if each book in the trilogy will be about a different kidnapped bride somewhere. The ending just felt so…different? Not complete or incomplete, just not really a cliffhanger.I liked Rhine but I don't know what I'd do with three books of her, especially if they contained Gabriel. Please, please, no love triangle. Gah.

  5. great review!! i felt the same like you on many points! I agree with you on Gabriel, they have such a romantic connection I just think he just symbolized freedom and her opportunity to choose like (cassia & ky).. awesome review!here's my reviewhttp://bit.ly/fNFsgH

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