Title: The Chemical Garden Trilogy: Wither
Author: Lauren DeStefano
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Released: March 2011
I am a fortunate recipient of an advance reader’s copy of debut novelist Lauren DeStefano’s The Chemical Garden Trilogy: Wither, published by Simon & Schuster. Wither is the first piece of this dystopian puzzle and although it is recommended for ages 14+, I was charmed by it and could not put it down. Wither is a refreshing, unique and dazzling story (despite comparisons made to The Handmaid’s Tale), filled with compelling characters that leap off the page. While it does raise a few questions, I chose not to analyze the life out of it and just enjoyed it for the pleasurable fantasy read that it is. I can already completely envision the movie version and don’t think I’m remiss in saying that fans of the Twilight series will undoubtedly enjoy this too.
In the not-too-distant future, Earth has almost been entirely obliterated by a viral plague created through genetic engineering that has wiped out every continent except for North America. In this nightmare, males only live to be 25-years-old and females only live to age 20, raising the questions, “What if you knew when you were going to die?” How would you choose to live your life?
Sixteen-year-old Rhine Ellery is a beautiful, intelligent orphan with hemochromatic eyes (one brown, one blue) who has been kidnapped by “Gatherers” and sold at auction as a bride to a rich governor. She is torn away from the only life she knows in an almost unrecognizable Manhattan where her twin brother Rowan works in a factory to support them while it’s her job to keep their ramshackle home safe from looters.
Rhine isn’t a special victim, but rather the norm, as there are few things left for young women in this new world to do but be sold into slavery to propagate the species. Only the beautiful are chosen as brides while the others become prostitutes or are murdered.
Rhine finds herself living in a picturesque but sinister Florida mansion – decorated with holograms and steeped in illusion – and wedded to a naïve, young Governor Linden Ashby. Linden, a would-be architect, is mourning the impending death of his true love and first wife, Rose, while being completely controlled by his creepy, geneticist father, Housemaster Vaughn (a first generation who didn’t succumb to the plague), who lets everyone think he’s working on an antidote for the fatal disease.
Rhine has two sister wives: (polygamy is also not unusual in this new world) 13-year-old Cecilia, a bratty redhead who was born in an orphanage and never knew her parents – so has little problem adjusting to life as a rich man’s child bride – and 18-year-old Jenna, a sad, introverted brunette whose sisters are murdered in the same van she was taken away in when she was captured.
Rhine befriends Rose, who soon dies, and whose body is mysteriously transported to the basement, never to be given a proper funeral. Cecilia takes her place as Linden’s new lover, and before long becomes pregnant with his child. Jenna’s relationship with her husband is only sexual as she refuses to give him her heart, while Rhine rejects the consummation of her marriage and instead befriends a kind and empathetic servant named Gabriel whom she comes to trust. (It was a little hard to believe that she would have been able to continuously deny her husband who clearly had his way with the others.)
On the outside, Rhine’s world is one of glamour, parties, growing friendships with her sister wives and an orange grove utopia, while the reality is one of ugly secrets, danger and the dance of the Grim Reaper.
This first person narrative is thoughtfully conveyed in Rhine’s voice, with moral dilemmas always close to the surface, and her relationships with the other characters are as well developed and realistic as they can be in a science fiction setting. We know Rhine is biding her time by pretending to want to be Linden’s first wife until she can figure out a way to escape. We also know that there’s something inherently evil going on in the basement of the mansion and that although Vaughn is supposedly carrying out DNA experiments to find a cure, nothing is what it appears to be. We also know by the end of this page turner that we’re not going to get to know what happens to Rhine and Gabriel until the next edition of the trilogy. By then, you will be completely sucked into the story and will have to read the next book! And believe me, I will.
Bravo Lauren DeStefano! You’re going to have a very successful writing career.