The Chemical Garden Trilogy: Wither (Book 1) by Lauren Destefano


I recently started watching the HBO show Big Love, which has made me interested in the concept of plural marriage. Not as something for myself, but seeing the dynamics and oddities that come out of a plural marriage are fascinating. So when I saw Wither I was particularly excited: a dystopian novel about polygamy! It seemed to be too good to be true, and in some ways, it was.

America has closed its borders after disaster has struck. A generation of perfect children was born, thanks to genetic engineering. Unfortunately, no one thought about the side effects, which were that those perfect children would grow up and have children who, instead of being perfect, would have limited lifespans due to some sort of virus. Girls die at age 20, boys die at age 25. What this leads to, among other things, is a world of orphans and rich people marrying many wives in an attempt to have many kids and experiment on curing the virus. How do they get these wives? Gatherers find them on the street, kidnap them, and bring them to buyers. The girls who are not wanted either get shot or made slaves. Rhine has had a better upbringing than some. She had parents for part of her life (they were part of the perfect generation) and a twin brother for company. But when she is taken, she is forced into a plural marriage with two other girls and must find a way to escape and find her brother again.

The idea in this story was a very interesting one and I really wanted to like it. Rhine and her sister-wives have very different reactions to their imprisonment. Cecily, at thirteen, is anxious to please and seems thrilled to be married. Jenna, the oldest at eighteen, is repulsed and mostly goes quietly along with things but does not share much of herself. Rhine attempts to gain their husbands favor in hopes of getting more rights and freedom and perhaps the chance at escape. Their relationship to each other is also diverse. Jenna and Rhine become fairly close while they look at Cecily as the kid sister who is annoying, naive, and in need of protection.

My problem is that Rhine and Jenna felt like poorly developed characters. Rhine in particular, as the narrator, behaved in a way that didn’t seem all that believable to me. Her repulsion and upset was never quite as strong as it felt like it should be. Her transition into cooperative wife came too quickly and easily. And when the opportunity to reveal the truth about her situation came, she did not take it, even though it likely would have gotten her free. The fact that she accepted her marriage (in the first person marriage she always referred too Linden as her Husband despite not actually exchanging vows and never sarcastically or halfheartedly like “my ‘husband'”) seemed particularly unrealistic. Cecily felt the most real and the most developed over the course of the series.

The story is interesting in some ways but I hoped it would go further. I’m still interested in seeing where the second book goes, but at the same time I feel like this series could have been much better than it was.

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