Review: Wither (Chemical Garden #1) by Lauren DeStefano
Rhine was born knowing when she would die. Everyone does in her virus-ravaged world, where boys live to 25 and girls merely to 20. In the ensuing panic, kidnapping and forced polygamist marriages have become the norm, and Rhine finds herself another teenage victim. Trapped in a lustrous mansion with her two sister wives and newlywed husband, she can think of only one thing: escape. Unfortunately for Rhine, she may lose more than her freedom if she stays in this twisted house of smoke and mirrors.
Wither is a despairing story of humanity's tragic flaw -- a race that tries to play God, and ultimately destroys itself. Lauren DeStefano turns this ominous tale into something more than just the fatal virus at its core, expanding it to encompass an entire planet that is dying, ending -- a macrocosmic tragedy that is inexpressibly sadder. There is a strange, illusory beauty to this world, and especially Linden's mansion, that hides the monstrosity underneath. Chemical Garden seems a fitting name for the series; there is a falseness, a wrongness to the beauty it portrays. This is compounded by the light, playful moments scattered throughout the novel that are jarring in the midst of all the horror. DeStefano does an excellent job of evoking the repulsive, alien and artificial aspects of this world with subdued prose pierced occasionally by stunning metaphor.
Yet, Rhine is a hard heroine to grasp. Her calculating manner of tackling this unfathomable situation is inspiring, but her utter level-headedness in the face of it all is rather incredible. The bond between Rhine and her sister wives is the most compelling aspect of the story, as they manage to form fragile friendships and alliances despite the implicit competition for favor. Still, both of Rhine's "sisters" seem somewhat one-dimensional unto themselves. Likewise, Linden fails to evoke strong emotions, either of love or of hate -- he is merely a presence. Every character seems to be a pawn in some grand game that no one can hope to win.
Ultimately, though the world was a fascinating construct, the story lacked the immediacy necessary to make it a hard-hitting dystopian. I was also left with a lot of unanswered questions about the fundamental setup -- why kidnap multiple wives when their offspring will just die at the same time? Why is no one troubled by the multiple wives, just the way they are kidnapped? Why doesn't Rhine reveal the truth at the end? It was an interesting read that mesmerized with its eerie incongruities and kept me reading to discover how the unnerving story would end, but it lacked that special potency to make it truly stand out amongst the many dystopians proliferating on the market today.