Review #30 Wither by Lauren Destefano

Yet another dystopian novel jumps on the bandwagon, hoping somehow to snare a portion of the reading audience so enchanted by Hunger Games.  Like Matched and a few of the other novels I have been reviewing as part of this challenge, Wither makes a brave attempt to carve its own place among the competition.

The marketing campaign behind this series is brilliant and certainly has its pulse on where the next generation goes to create a buzz.  The website for the trilogy is slick and the trailer on YouTube feels almost like a movie trailer aiming to entice a techno-savvy generation into reading this novel.

The basic premise of the Chemical Garden series is simple yet disturbing.  Thanks to the meddling of science and the attempts to eliminate diseases, a plague has affected all of the younger generations of humanity.  Men now die at the age of 25 and women at the age of 20 from the virus that plagues civilization.  The gap between rich and poor has widened to the point where the wealthy are now able to entice or kidnap multiple brides for their young sons to breed successive generations or find a cure before they themselves (the untouched older generation) perish wither and die.

Wither opens with plenty of action. 16 year old Rhine Ellery is captured by the “Gatherers” and sold along with 2 other girls to become new brides for a wealthy young man named Linden Ashby of Florida while the rest of the captured girls are brutally slaughtered.  After being drugged and transported to closed compound of the Ashby manor, Rhine and her “sister brides”, Jenna and Cecily begin a life of captivity and privilege. Rose, the love of Linden’s life is dying from the virus and they are to be her replacements.

Wither was one of the most disturbing books that I’ve read in a long time.  It reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale or Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country.  When 13 year old Cecily becomes pregnant and carries Linden’s child to term or 18 year old Jenna uses sex  as a weapon, it  felt like promoting teenage exploitation.  The fact that Rhine somehow manages to escape consummating her marriage for the entire novel, despite Linden sleeping next to her many nights in her room, is not only improbable, it may give young women a false sense of their own safety.  When the heroine falls in love with a young servant in the house, she pretends to be more compliant in order to earn the privileges that come along with being a “First Wife”.  The rest of the novel deals with her challenges as she tries to avoid arousing the suspicions of Linden’s demented scientist father, Housemaster Vaughn. What twisted experiments is he conducting in order to find a cure?  Does he mean for Cecily’s son to be Linden’s malleable heir if a cure cannot be found in time?

Two novels remain in this series and I may eventually read both of them to satisfy my curiosity of how the story turns out… but I find the mercenary, dismal, objectifying overtones of this first book will certainly keep me from recommending Wither to friends with daughters and my own youngest daughter.

Hardcover format, 358 pages, published in 2011 by Simon & Schuster

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