Book Review: Wither by Lauren DeStefano

8525590Title: Wither (Chemical Garden #1)
Author: Lauren DeStefano
Genre: Dystopian, Fantasy, Young Adult, Romance
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: March 22nd 2011
Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository | Author Website
Rating: 4,5 stars
Review copy purchased by yours truly.

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 Rhine is growing dangerously attracted to, Rhine attempts to break free, in the limited time she has left.

Ever since Wither was first released on March 22nd, I’ve been dying to read it. With dying I mean, literally suffocating under the aomunt of sadness I had to cope with thanks to the fact it seemed almost impossible for me to get my hands on this book. Problem number one: I was as broke as people can get, thanks to my latest contest – an Iron Fey giveaway – and I had barely enough money to buy food (I’m slightly exaggerating to get my point across). Problem number two: my Mom was fed up with me ravishing through my cash account to buy books from Book Depository, and she threatened to put me in a mental asylum if I ordered one more book. Thankfully the problem solved itself, because last week I magically stumbled across a dutch version of Wither in the local book store. Coincedence? I think not, I believe God has finally answered my prayers. I didn’t necessarily want a dutch version, but hey, one cannot complain about Godly interferences. So I managed to buy the book without my Mom’s knowledge and I have devoured it in one day. Was it everything I hoped? Certainly.

Wither is set in a dystopian world much alike our own, but in the future. Humans have experimented with immortality and not-aging and eugenetica and cloning people. And not only have they experimented with that – they’ve actually succeeded. Now the problem is that while the first generation suffers from nothing and manages to live extraordinary long lives, that the second generation does not. They are prone to a virus so devestating that it kills all men at age twenty-five and all women at age twenty. With so little left to live for, and only roughly twenty years to spend on this earth, Rhine really doesn’t want to spend what little time she has left locked up in a mansion with a husband she cannot trust nor love, and without her twin brother and only living relative, Rowan. After her capture, Rhine solemly vows to escape, a vow that might be hard for her to maintain, as her new husband’s father, Master Vaughn, turns out to be a far more dangerous person than at first expected, and he is not inclined to let his son’s new wife leave that easily…

The premise is extraordinary, as we are once again faced with humanity’s greatest flaw: our desire to play God, although we are well aware from history and logical reasoning, that this can only lead to our own destruction. The fact that Lauren DeStefano does not only focus on Rhine, our protagonist, or on the other girl’s nearing death – like Rose”s, a minor character and Linden’s (Rhine’s husband) first wife – but actually expands the topic is highly intriguing. She lays the focus not on one individual’s perish, but on the end of an entire world, the self-destructive nature of humanity led to the point where our entire world is dying. It is a fact almost too large to grasp. Secondly, the title of the trilogy, Chemical Garden, is most fitting. As we learn from the novel, most of nature has already perished on this strange dystopian world that seems so close to heart. Underwater, we see holograms of fish and sealife, but in reality, all of that is gone. Chemicals substitute for flowers and trees, simple ways of procreating have been replaced by cloning and other scientific methods. Nothing is natural anymore, everything is fake, false, delusional. We see that monstrosity portrayed in all its rawness as we take a look at Linden’s mansion – there is beauty in it, but it is a deformed, fake beauty, horrible in all its monstrosity. Rhine and her sisterwives laugh, play and enjoy themselves occasionally here: pathetic attempts of happiness in the midst of events that can only be described as horrifying. Vaughn’s basement, and the terrible things he does in there, from mutilating corpses and possibly even killing infants, hidden behind the charade of finding a cure and a beautifully-looking mansion, is probably the most significant example of the twisted beauty this world holds.

Rhine is a charming heroine, but not an easy one to understand. While her choices always appear to be rational, they also come off as cold and distant. When she hears a girl being shot, she flinches and feels anger towards the people who did it, but otherwise her reaction is quite unemotional. She feels sick and disgusted when finding out what Master Vaughn has done to Rose’s body, but hardly enough to take any measures against Master Vaughn, or to confront him on the matter. She is a passive, practically dispassionate character. It is believable that she acts this way because the circumstances she lives in do not leave a lot of room for choice, but still, I would have liked her to stand up for herself once. At the beginning, I thought her behavior to be smart and calculated: in a situation where others would have pleaded, run, screamed or tried to escape right away, she adapts to the situation, manipulates Linden from day one, and awaits the right moment to escape. But somewhere along the way, any normal person would just freak, or scream or rage, or let go of that calm, passive behavior at least once. Rhine doesn’t, which is unfortunate, because it would have made her more believable as a character.

The most intriguing thing about the story, despite from the imaginative dystopian world Lauren DeStefano created and the highly original plot, is the relationship between Rhine and her sisterwives. That’s really the heart of the story. As Rhine is forced to marry Linden, a wealthy twenty-year-old man, she is not the only forced to do so. On the one hand, you have quiet and detached Jenna, who cares deeply for Rhine and Cecily, but hates Linden with a passion, blaming him for the murder of her sisters, who happened to be some of the girls who were shot earlier on in the book. On the other hand, there’s Cecily, who is young and hopeful enough to live in the fantasy created at Linden’s mansion, who does not see through the beauty and luxury to notice the harshness and coldness lying underneath. She is, by all accounts, a child, innocent and trusting, and she is eager to please Linden in every way, willing to do whatever it takes to make this fantasy reality. Although all three of them are different, they learn to trust each other and count on each other, and what starts off as a fragile and rocky friendship soon turns in true sisterhood, love and care. It is beautiful and heart-warming to see them interact. All of their personalities are well-developed, distinct and fitting, and together they make a team truly worth rooting for.

On the other hand, I do have to mention that the male characters unfortunately lack personality. Linden is a presence, not a real character. He appears to be stupid, eager to trust people who hardly deserve his trust, and way too easy to manipulate. It got to the point where I felt like slapping him occassionally. Gabriel on the other hand, proves to be no better than Linden. He is dispassionate, emotionless and unwilling to fight even for the things he supposedly cares about. He needs Rhine to drag him along, because he himself will not do anything. He seems to have accepted his fate, as one of the other wordless, unknown servants in the mansion, whereas he could be so much more. I would have liked to see more of his inner struggle, especially when he suddenly vanishes for about one hundred pages.

And then the bad guy in the book, Master Vaughn. Whereas he is portrayed as being a vile criminal who cannot even leave the dead be, I would have liked it more if he had been sketched as a tragical villain instead. Because if you think about it, there is something tragic about him anyway. He has already lost one son due to that wrecked virus, and he is going to lose another in four years time. He is supposedly working on a cure against the virus, which would naturally put him in the good guys category. On the other hand, he kidnaps brides for his son, does things with Rose’s body after her death, and there are some other horrible things later on in the book that can be accounted to him. But then my question is: why? Never once in the book do we see an explenation as to why Master Vaughn is making these choices. I refuse to believe it’s simply because he’s evil. He needs to have other motives. I would have loved to see his inner struggle as to what things have to be done and whether or not he should go through with that. I would have liked the villain to have a human side, rather than just being portrayed as ‘the monster’.

That said, Wither had a lot of potential, and lives up to it in most of the occassions. The plot is solid, fast-paced and highly original. The world-building is exquisite. The main characters are well-developed and have interesting personalities, which become even more interesting in their interactions with each other. Unfortunately, the supporting characters have no personality whatsoever, and are merely ‘there’ without actually contributing anything. The villain is flat and shallow, and could have been better developed. Luckily for the reader, those flaws go unnoticed as the story unfolds and you feel yourself more and more drawn into the highly disturbing but endlessly intriguing world Lauren DeStefano created in this book. I would recommend it to all fans of dystopian and/or young adult novels.


  1. oh my, i didn’t like this book 🙁
    but i agree that the most interesting part is the relationship of Rhine with Jenna and Cecily. 😛

  2. Wow, your reviews are really descriptive, you should write books! I really liked the characters, it’s a shame you didn’t. 🙁
    ComaCalm’s Corner


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