Review: Wither

Wither (Chemical Garden, #1)Wither
by Lauren DeStefano

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wither / 978-1-442-40905-7

I'm really pleased at the number of solid "infertile end of the world" dystopias coming out in YA literature lately - between "Wither" and "Bumped", it's almost like a new generation of Margaret Atwoods are honing their literary skills with these thrilling new releases. "Wither" is a strong addition to the genre and if it fails anywhere, it is perhaps with the sometimes muddled world-building - if you can overlook that, then you're almost sure to enjoy this depressing-yet-haunting read.

"Wither" is set in a world very different from our own. About 80 years before the book starts, the final generation of "normal" humans (people like you and me - let's call them 'Alphas') made a major breakthrough in genetic engineering and every baby born after a certain date was born genetically enhanced to resist every known form of disease. This super-human generation (called "The First Generation" in the novel, but let's call them the 'Betas') has thrived and flourished and are "practically immortal". However, every child born to a Beta (let's call these children 'Gammas') has died almost instantly at the age of either 20 (for girls) or 25 (for boys). Now, 80 years after the first Betas were born, the world is struggling to find a cure and to keep the human race alive somehow with the dwindling stock of Gammas available for breeding.

It's an ambitious hook, and while it's not easy to plausibly set up (Why did ALL the Alphas move over to the genetically enhanced babies right away? How could they all afford it? Were the designer babies paid for by the government? Were they MANDATED by the government? What about all the Amish and Jehovah's Witness groups that would have religious objections to this sort of thing?), you *could* hand-wave a lot of it pretty easily with a convenient plague that took out everyone except the disease resistant Betas, so it's easy enough to let the gaps in the setup slide. Then the author seems to realize, though, that a world-wide acceptance and implementation of genetically enhanced babies might be a bit harder to explain, so it's briefly dropped in text that the entire world EXCEPT North America has been so completely devastated by wars and bombings that there's no remaining land mass (besides North American) that is large enough to be seen from space - the world is now basically one big ocean. This is covered in maybe two paragraphs in text - you can quite literally blink and miss it.

So now we have a world where North America is the only thing that exists and everyone in it (except the aging Betas) is absolutely guaranteed to drop dead at either 20 or 25, depending on gender. I'm honestly not sure what a world like that would look like, but what's problematic with "Wither" is that the world looks surprisingly like our own. The premise of the novel is that young women are captured off the street by professional "Gatherers" who sell the girls as breeding stock and sex slaves to the wealthy upper-class who live in beautiful gated estates, but what I'm not sure I understand is how any of that can be possible in this world. What does "wealth" mean in a world where no one can expect to live past 25? Why are the wealthy and the pampered perfectly safe at their parties and rich gatherings, rather than besieged in their estate homes by mobs of ravening apocalypse-crazed young men and women? And where do the absolutely phenomenal amount of goods come from that are lavished on the young protagonist - someone, somewhere, is spinning fine cloths, and creating lovely makeups, and farming delectable animals and vegetables, and I find myself thoroughly disappointed that we don't get to see more of their motivation.

Even if you sadly jettison the world-building (which I hate to do, because so much of a good dystopia depends on the world-building), the character building in "Wither" also sometimes seems a little anemic. Some admirable attempts were made at the beginning to establish a "gray-and-gray morality" world - the master of the house is an aging Beta desperate to find a cure for his 21-year-old son, and the son is a pampered noble unwilling to imagine that his three new brides would ever want anything more in life than to be his little toys - but by the end, all that seems tossed out in favor of a heroes-and-villains mentality: the aging scientist quickly devolves into a cruel, murdering despot, and we're apparently meant to see his son as a sweetly innocent boy who just somehow failed to notice that his father is Joseph Mengele. Oddly, the main love interest - a boy named Gabriel - seems the least well-characterized of all the people in the book, and sometimes I couldn't help but feel that the novel would have been better if he'd been removed entirely - indeed, I don't even think the story would have to change much to accommodate his absence! On the other hand, the plural wives - Rose, Rhine, Jenna, and Cecily - are so incredibly well-realized that they are perfect examples of how a vibrant character can evolve and change over the course of a novel.

At the end of the day, "Wither" is a fascinating and lovely read. If it stumbled a little on the world-building, I can't help but feel that it was *still* better than many books that aren't quite so brave and bold. I recommend it despite the minor flaws because it's still a horrifying and incredible read - and because I particularly liked the strong characters of the four sister wives, as well as the clear and vivid portrayal of the horrors of being trapped in a gilded cage.

NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through Amazon Vine.

~ Ana Mardoll

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