Review: Wither (Chemical Gardens #1) by Lauren DeStefano

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
Genre: Young Adult, Dystopian
Pages: 358 pages (hardcover)
Release Date: March 22nd 2011
Source: Via the author in exchange for an honest review.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Blurb (from

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 she trusts, Rhine attempts to break free, in the limited time she has left.

Review (full review posted on

Contrary to just about everyone else, I don’t like this cover.

I like the model and her hair and makeup and dress, and I like the set decoration. What I don’t like is those stupid big circles around Rhine’s ring and the bird in the cage. DeStefano started out as a literary writer, and the stupid circles linking Rhine’s marriage to the caged bird is way too obvious for the subtleties of literary novels. I hate those circles. They ruin a gorgeous cover.

Wither is a very atmospheric book, a stifling Gothic tale of a young beauty trapped in a big house with an older gentleman. What makes this different to other Gothic novels is that Rhine is in a polygamous marriage that is linked to slight dodgy worldbuilding in that all women die at age 20 and all men at age 25. So young girls are stolen off the streets and forced into marriages, prostitution, or shot. That part makes no sense to me and is why the book loses half a star. I don’t know DeStefano’s logic in this but surely girls would be a valuable commodity in this weird future, so why on earth would anyone shoot them for not being pretty enough? A breeder is a breeder, a womb is a womb. I can understand the girls being reduced to baby factories but I can’t quite wrap my head around them being disposable. After all, that’s the point of the polygamous marriage. Stick five women and one man together and tell them to breed and in a year you’ll end up with five babies. Stick one women and five men together and in one year you’ll only have one baby. So with the culture revolving around polygamous marriage – namely unwilling polygamous marriage – I just can’t quite understand why rejected girls would be shot.

Some people complain that having the United States as the only country left in the world and the polar ice caps melted as not working either, but I’m of the opinion that Rhine is an unreliable narrator. We as the audience can only know what Rhine knows, and if she’s been taught something – say, that the United States is the only country left in the world as the others have been destroyed by wars – then that’s what she’s going to tell us. Doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true. So I’m of the belief that Rhine’s wrong.

Apart from the weird worldbuilding, the actual story itself is breathtaking. Like I said, it’s an atmospheric Gothic polygamous marriage tale, and it’s very powerful. It actually caught me by surprise, especially something that happened to one of Rhine’s sister wives. I won’t spoil it, because I found it so emotional that even though I was annoyed that I had to go do normal stuff like eat and sleep and work which interrupted my precious reading time, I willingly put the book down and dissolved into noisy sobs in my partner’s arms. I just… I can’t even. I didn’t even like the character and here I found a huge emotional response.

That’s how I judge books. I judge them on how they make me feel. I feel that Wither was amazing, but the worldbuilding needs half a star knocked off. It made me cry. It make me laugh. I loved the pace and the plot and Rhine’s character. She has a very minor flaw that makes her speshul, but apart from that she’s a caring, manipulative, awesome heroine. She never gives up on what she wants, she never loses sight of it and she goes through a lot to reach her goal. She doesn’t need saving, she has goals that extend beyond becoming someone’s girlfriend. She’s realistic and probably one of my favourite heroines. I loved living in Rhine’s head while all those new relationships developed.

I was very pleased when I read the end and I’m very much looking forward to reading the sequel, Fever.