A number of years previous to the beginning of the story, all diseases in the world are eradicated through genetic engineering. “First Generations” later discover that there is a problem with subsequent generations. All females at age 20 and all males at age 25 will develop a genetic virus and die. While scientists desperately seek a cure, the lab and all research are destroyed in an explosion. Young teenage girls are considered a commodity and are stalked and kidnapped by Gatherers, who sell them to be young brides to wealthy men. Polygamy is widely practiced and encouraged.
Rhine and Rowan Ellery are twins who lost their parents to the lab explosion. They are living in their parents’ house in Manhattan and working at odd jobs in order to make ends meet. They are very careful, always looking for Gatherers and turning away anyone trying to take advantage of them. They are living in their basement and have even booby trapped their kitchen so that they can be alerted to any intruders invading their house.
However, Rhine is not careful enough because she is ultimately lured away, kidnapped, and sold to be one of three wives to twenty-year-old House Governor Linden Ashby, who lives on an estate in Florida. His current wife, Rose, is now twenty-years old and dying. Rhine’s “sister wives” are Cecily, age fourteen, and Jenna, age eighteen. Their roles are to be companions to Linden and produce children to be secretly used as guinea pigs towards a cure. The household is actually headed by Linden’s father, Housemaster Vaughan Ashby, who is a widower. Vaughan is supposedly a medical doctor and is looking for a cure for the virus so that he can save his son.
Even before Rhine enters the Ashby estate, she is trying to find a way out and back to her twin brother. As the days pass, Rose tragically dies, and the three wives become emotionally closer because they spend so much time together. Rhine discovers how controlling Vaughan is and how little Linden knows of the outside world. Much of Rhine and Linden’s time together is spent going to elaborate parties in a nearby city.
Vaughan eventually discovers that Rhine is drawn to Gabriel, a servant in the house, and is considering escaping from the estate. The results of his discovery lead to Gabriel’s being sent to another floor to work, the tightening of the wives’ freedoms, and, unfortunately, in one of their deaths. In the last moments of the book, Rhine and Gabriel do escape and make their way to freedom.
I have really gotten caught up in the dystopian movement! From the moment I started reading Wither, I was totally spellbound. Imagine a world where lives are over nearly before they have begun and a world where polygamy is commonplace, widely promoted, and accepted! While these ideas seem repulsive to me, I was so drawn into the story that I could not stop reading! Told through the eyes of Rhine, readers see both the cruelty and the oppressiveness of those who are wealthy and, therefore, feel entitled. We also see how being orphaned has affected the young and made them desperate for the necessities most people take for granted—food, shelter, water, and warmth.
Author Lauren DeStefano’s descriptions of the Manhattan living conditions, the Ashby estate, and the flamboyant parties held in an unnamed Floridian city are breathtaking. Landscapes, foods, clothes, and furnishings are explained in lush detail. All the characters have distinct and recognizable personalities. I loved Deidre, Elle, and Adair, the very young domestics who were charged with taking care of the sister wives. They are so dedicated to the women they serve! I also loved the sister wives, especially Jenna, even though she is initially withdrawn and moody.
I did not expect that Rhine would become friends with her predecessor, Rose, or any of the sister wives. However, they were there, both emotionally and physically, for each other. I also did not think Rhine would have any feelings except hatred for Linden, so I was surprised that she empathized with him. Rhine grew tremendously within the novel. She comes to believe and accept that it is Linden’s father, Vaughan, who is actually stifling and controlling everyone within the house, and who is keeping Linden in the dark about what has really happened in the world. The idyllic life that Rhine lives within the Ashby estate is a much better life than the squalid one she lives with her brother. I am surprised that she would even think about leaving it all behind, but obviously, blood, true love, and freedom are thicker than a wealthy life of leisure!
What a powerful book this was! I was surprised and excited to find out that this is actually going to be a trilogy called “The Chemical Garden”! I am so looking forward to the next two books in the series! I highly recommend this book for high school libraries and public libraries!!!