Thursday, March 31, 2011

Wither (Chemical Garden Trilogy #1) by Lauren DeStefano

What You Need to Know:  This is an unique, imperfect, take on the current YA Dystopia trend, that raises some interesting questions about safety and gender.

Summary:  Having been kidnapped, 16 year old Rhine is now a sister wife.  Forced into a polygamous marriage with a wealthy man's son, Rhine does not care about the luxury of her new surroundings.  She only wants to get free and get home to her twin brother in the time she has left.   Like all children, Rhine has only 4 years left to live,  her brother 9.   However, Rhine can't help but care for her "sister wives", her child servants, even (a little) for her husband.  She cares more than a little for Gabriel, a house servant.  Overshadowing those feelings is her father-in-law, a geneticist obessed with finding a way to prolong his son's life.  When Rhine sees the depth of his obsession, she knows she must escape.

What Worked:  This is a very fast moving story.  Wisely, DeStefano doesn't give too much background on the cause of the early deaths, doling that information out as the narrative progresses.  She also doesn't back away from the less savory aspects of a world where young girls are truely commodified.  Rhine is kidnapped while looking for work.  Girls are sold into prostitution or shot if they are not purchased to be wives.   Sister wives are expected to pump out babies, fast. 

Most interestingly, DeStefano shows the effects of a world without adults through the three different sister wives.  The viewpoint character, Rhine, is fairly ordinary, having had a reasonably "normal" life.  Jenna, a street kid, turned to prostitution and looks at her forced marriage as a nice place to die.  Finally, the youngest, Cecily, raised in a orphanage, sees mariage and motherhood as her joyful destiny.  Each of these girls brings their own experinces to their "marriage" and their reactions and choices are believable.

What Didn't:  The world is apparently in a crisis beyond the early mortality rate, but DeStefano doesn't elaborate.  There's some mention of a war, but this is not expanded on.  Also, there is apparently a huge gap between the wealthy and the poor, but again, this is not fully explained.   A little more world building would have made the circumstances clearer. 

The big bad in the story, Rhine's father in law, Housemaster Vaughn, is little more than a shadowy grin and a sense of evil.  We know he's performing genetic experiments, and hear about them, but we don't see or hear them.  He obviously menaces Rhine, but his purpose remains doubtful.

Like all YA dystopias, this one has a love story, but the relationship between Gabriel and Rhine feels very tacked on.  Yes, Rhine is 16 and emotional, and yes, Gabriel seems like a nice guy, but their romance gets in the way of the more interesting aspects of the book. 

Who Would I Give This Book To?  I can see this book having a wide audience, as it plugs into a number of current trends -- dystopias, polygamy, genetics, strong girls.  It's less actiony than the Hunger Games, and less romancy than Twilight, but would probably appeal to both those audiences. 

Also Note:  This book has a really great cover, that plays up a lot of the symbolism of the story. 

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