Thursday, December 23, 2010

Wither - Lauren DeStefano

Title: Wither (Book 1 in The Chemical Garden Trilogy)
Author: Lauren DeStefano
Publisher: Simon & Schuster BFYR, March 22 2011 (Hardcover) (Review copy is an ARC from the publisher)
Length: 358 pages
Genre: Young Adult; Dystopian Fiction
Started: December 22, 2010
Finished: December 22, 2010

From the author's website:
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 limted time she has left.

I can't tell you how immensely happy I was to receive an ARC of Wither (thanks Simon & Schuster!), especially after seeing so many people who had already read their ARC copies rave about it. My voice will be added to those raving reviews about Wither, it was a truly amazing book.

Wither opens up in an interesting premise. Sometime in a future where North America is the only land still standing, human beings have managed to cure cancer, allergies, and pretty much any life-threatening ailment. Any babies born during this generation (called the First Generation) benefitted from these advances and are essentially immortal, though they do show their age. However, something went wrong when these individuals tried to apply the same medical advances to their own children, and all generations born afterwards have contracted a virus that results in death at the age of twenty for females and twenty-five for males, no exceptions. Every human is literally a ticking time bomb.

With so many of their children dying early in life, First Generation scientists are trying to uncover a cure. At the same time, teenage girls are kidnapped by Gatherers from their homes and families and sold into polygamous marriages in order to keep the population thriving (not to mention provide new test subjects for experiments relating to the cure that everyone wants).

Sixteen-year-old Rhine Ellery lives in Manhattan with her twin brother Rowan after their scientist parents are killed, and finds herself held in an expansive estate in Florida after being kidnapped with a group of other girls. She is chosen by Housemaster Vaughn to be one of three new brides to his son, Linden Ashby, along with 13-year-old Cecily and 18-year-old Jenna. The girls are treated like queens and are given anything they want, but they are confined to the grounds of the mansion and are essentially expected to be baby factories until they die. Wither essentially chronicles Rhine's efforts to escape the estate and regain her freedom.

Okay, enough retelling of the plot, on to the good stuff.

This book had me hooked from the first page; it's hard not to get caught up in Rhine's plight and to really feel for her as a character and want her to succeed. I'm really glad this book fulfilled all the hype and expectations I had, because I had thought that The Hunger Games books had created a new unattainable threshold of YA novels for me and that I'd never be able to fully enjoy other books again, but thankfully there are still equally wonderful authors out there that create a piece like Wither that just envelops and sucks you in until you wish the rest of the series would materialize in your hand so you could hibernate for a few days and just finish the whole thing. Yes, it was just that good.

I loved the character development in this book, all the characters are very fleshed out, even Vaughn. I especially like the development with Rhine and Linden. Rhine is determined to escape the mansion and wants to hate Linden with all her being for separating her from her brother, but when she realizes that Linden is as much a victim as she is and that he actually does care for her, she argues with herself over whether she could just stay and be the favourite wife and all the benefits it entails. I liked how the author showed Rhine wavering in her decision, because I'm sure it would be pretty tempting offer for most people. I kind of wish we got to see more of Gabriel, but what I did see of him I liked; plus I'm sure we'll get to see more of Gabriel in the upcoming installments.

The issue of ownership is wonderfully explored in this novel. As soon as these girls are orphaned at a young age as so many are, they are fair game for anyone that wants to take them. Everyone knows that these girls are forcefully taken and have no freedom, but because they appear on the arm of their husbands on television looking like celebrities and they seem to be better off for it, everyone ignores the fact that the girls are being forced into marriages and childbirth. There are a lot of teachable moments in the book: issues of ownership, ethics and morality related to enslavement and forced reproduction, not to mention biological and scientific ethics...this book is a gold mine for discussion in a class.

Although sex plays a big role in this novel (the girls are brides in the full extent of the word and are expected to perform in that way), the issues relating to it are presented very tastefully. The act of sex between Linden and the girls is hinted at but never actually explicitly stated, and the idea of pregnancy is also handled quite well, meaning it doesn't glorify teen pregnancies for anybody who's worried about that. The girls are never forced into anything sexually, although the idea of tiny 13-year-old Cecily having sex still squicks me out regardless, but I'm pretty sure that is intended in order to see how messed up Rhine's world really is.

The writing is beautiful. Rhine's voice is eloquent, yet not pretentious; and there's no issue of showing versus telling, the author does a wonderful job of showing the reader everything through Rhine's eyes without having to spell it out for you.

The plot is well done and layered with the issues of escape as well as Vaughn, not to mention that it goes along at a good pace, so there's no boring lag that most books I've read lately tend to suffer from.

The book really reminds me of a YA version of The Handmaid's Tale, but much better. I'm a teacher, and a Canadian, and I'll be the first to admit that I can't stand Margaret Atwood's books. I loathed it when we had to read her stuff when I was in high school and I still apologize to my classes if we have to read her stuff nowadays. It's just not an enjoyable reading experience for kids today. I'm a big proponent of using modern YA books with similar themes in classrooms to replace certain outdated "classics" that we force kids to read. I'm still trying to get some of my local schools to drop Lord of The Flies in favour of Michael Grant's Gone, without much success, but I'm still trying. Wither is a book that I can say as a teacher that I would consider using to replace The Handmaid's Tale as a more approachable novel with similar themes for use in a classroom. This is going to be a book that I'll talk about in my class for sure, either to recommend to my students or to go on a reading list for a final project if I can't actually use it as a full-class novel study.

This book is the beginning of a trilogy, so there are more installments forthcoming; and I can guarantee you that I will be impatiently waiting until I see a listing for book 2, which I'm hoping will be sometime within the next year, and will be the first to pre-order it. Wither comes out on March 22, 2011, so mark it on your calendars!

Did you see how much I wrote up there? All positives. It's awesome and brilliant. Just trust me, pick up this book when it comes out on March 22, 2011, you won't be disappointed! Due to the content, I wouldn't give it to anyone younger than high school aged, so not for the kiddies.

Thoughts on the cover:
I think people have been buzzing about the cover just as much as the content of the book. It's gorgeous, probably one of my favourite covers that I've seen period. The pink font fits well against the dark purple background, and I like the circles and the boxes and how some of the text is aligned on its side, it really makes for a dynamic image. Rhine looks just as I pictured her, and I especially like how the circles connect her face to the wedding ring, and the bird in the cage. I could have a whole class discussion on the metaphors and allegory just in the cover alone.


  1. Wow, just.... wow. Absolutely fantastic review. I really have trouble believing Wither is Lauren's debut novel - from all these positive, raving reviews I've read, you'd think she'd have a whole shelf full of bestsellers to her name.

    Thanks for posting. I am so, so, SO excited for Wither's release. I think this may very well be the one of the best of 2011 :)

  2. @Brodie --> I would never have thought this was her first novel if I didn't know beforehand, you don't normally see this quality of writing from a typical debut author.

    I think everyone who's read this so far has loved it to pieces, I have yet to see a review that wasn't glowing. I'm really hoping this book gets more attention when it releases, I've been telling all my friends that read to keep an eye out for it in March ^_^