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Book Cover Image: Wither by Lauren DestefanoTitle: Wither (Chemical Garden Trilogy)

Author: Lauren Destefano

Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books): “By age sixteen, Rhine Ellery has four years left to live. She can thank modern science for this genetic time bomb. A botched effort to create a perfect race has left all males with a lifespan of 25 years, and females with a lifespan of 20 years. Geneticists are seeking a miracle antidote to restore the human race, desperate orphans crowd the population, crime and poverty have skyrocketed, and young girls are being kidnapped and sold as polygamous brides to bear more children.

When Rhine is kidnapped and sold as a bride, she vows to do all she can to escape. Her husband, Linden, is hopelessly in love with her, and Rhine can’t bring herself to hate him as much as she’d like to. He opens her to a magical world of wealth and illusion she never thought existed, and it almost makes it possible to ignore the clock ticking away her short life. But Rhine quickly learns that not everything in her new husband’s strange world is what it seems. Her father-in-law, an eccentric doctor bent on finding the antidote, is hoarding corpses in the basement. Her fellow sister wives are to be trusted one day and feared the next, and Rhine is desperate to communicate to her twin brother that she is safe and alive. Will Rhine be able to escape–before her time runs out?”

Thoughts: Wither is one of those novels that is generating a lot of buzz in the book blogging community, with people touting it as the next The Hunger Games. Personally, I think those comparisons sell each series short, as one immediately considers that Wither is going to be just as thrilling, with the characters as fully formed as in Suzanne Collins’ world. In my opinion, this is just not the case. Wither is a decent novel with an interesting premise, but this first novel in the trilogy leaves more questions than answers. It doesn’t make it bad, just different.

Reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale, the reader sees this world of polygamous wives and short life spans through Rhine’s memories and thoughts. At first, the reader sympathizes with Rhine. She is forced into a world she does not want, imprisoned and torn apart from her beloved twin brother. As with any narrator though, as the story progresses, one gets the sense of how naive she is. Her initial impressions about her sister wives and her husband prove false, as she understands more about their past and their own overcome obstacles. As this happens, the reader’s sympathy with Rhine lessens slightly, for the question becomes who is right? Does Cecily have the right idea in accepting her fate and being proud to be a sister wife? Is Jenna? Or is Rhine correct that she needs to escape this privileged but suffocating world?

Taking place in the future, the differences in this dystopian world created by Ms. Destefano are very subtle. People still drive cars and watch television. They still attend movie theaters and conferences, buy and build houses, work in factories and call centers. Yet, one needs a telescope to see the Statue of Liberty from the Manhattan harbor, and there are furious blizzards in Florida. The subtle differences are easy to miss, and if a reader were not paying attention, one would find it easy to believe that Ms. Destefano were describing today’s world gone horribly awry. This familiarity adds a certain realism to the overall story that makes the tragedy of this society that much more palpable. Yet, the similarities to today’s modern world make it difficult to describe Wither as a truly dystopian novel.

Throughout the novel, the reader gets the definite impression that all is not as it seems. Why haven’t the greatest scientific minds in the remaining world been able to find a cure for the virus, especially when they could find a cure for cancer? Is Vaughn truly evil or just desperate in his attempts to save the life of his sun? While the world does not appear to be run by the government, nor does it appear that this government is manipulating the information disseminated via the news, is this truly the case? With Rhine rather naive in her experiences in the outside world, one cannot help but believe that there is much about this world that remains to be exposed.

Wither is not as enthralling as The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, or even Twilight – for those who are fans of that series. It is easy to read but also easy to put down. Rhine does not have the depth of character that other female heroines have, and her focus is decidedly inward. Unfortunately, such comparisons only do Wither a disservice, as it unfairly raises expectations to such heights that one is undoubtedly going to be disappointed. When taken by itself however and those expectations are removed, Wither is a decent story. There are enough questions left unanswered and Rhine is an interesting enough character that one wants the story to continue. It might not be a novel that one is compelled to read nonstop, but it is one that gets the reader thinking about this unknown world. In the end, that is what any author can hope to accomplish and in this Ms. Destefano definitely succeeds.

Thank you to Simon and Schuster for my galley copy!

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