In Lauren DeStefano’s Wither, the first book of the Chemical Garden trilogy, women are bought and stolen as breeding stock in hopes that natural births will prolong the lifespans of the next generations. Genetic engineering has caused a fatal disease which kills women at age 20 and men at age 25. This futuristic dystopian novel is like Hunger Games meets Big Love meets Matched as multiple women are forcibly paired up with a husband to bear his children when his first childless wife succumbs to the disease.
Rhine (16) and her sister wives, Jenna (19) and Cecily (13) are brought to marry Linden and help him move on as his first wife Rose is dying. Linden doesn’t fully understand the circumstances under which his wives have been taken, but plays a role in their imprisonment nonetheless. The women live in a glorified prison where they need access codes to get around and accompaniment to leave the grounds. They spend the majority of their time on a single floor in their home, where they are cared for by domestics, cooks, and attendants, who were themselves taken from orphanages, and are there to meet their every need.
It is common for husbands to choose a first wife, or favorite wife, who receives the most privileges: more access to the grounds, a chance to attend lavish parties, more frequent nightly visits from her husband. Rhine knows that her best chance at freedom is winning her husband’s favor, despite the circumstances under which they were wed. Her only chance to escape is to be allowed out of the house in the first place. This becomes more and more crucial as Rhine falls for a servant boy, Gabriel, and Linden’s stern, harsh father finds out. However, leaving behind a husband who genuinely cares for her and a life of opulence may be more difficult than Rhine anticipated.
I was initially skeptical of the book’s plot summary, but couldn’t stop staring at the gorgeous cover. When rave reviews kept coming in, I decided to give it a try. I found the text every bit as captivating and enchanting as the cover. This book is worthy of all the hype it has already received well in advance of its publication date. Beautiful writing, even pacing, and complex, three-dimensional characters kept me on the edge of my seat waiting to find out if or how Rhine might find her way back home to her twin brother. While there were moments where I thought, “Hey, having your every whim cared for might not be so bad,” I ultimately felt the pull of Rhine’s longing for real romance, freedom, and family. (The incredibly creepy father in law was probably my biggest push down that road.) Though the primary story arc is resolved in book one of the trilogy, I can’t wait to see what is in store for the next two books.