Saturday, September 29, 2012

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

Wither (The Chemical Garden #1) by Lauren DeStefano
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Much as I try to fight it, occasionally I find myself judging a book by its cover.  Wither was that kind of book.  It was recommended to me by a friend because of my recent penchant for young adult dystopia, and like any careful reader I decided I should look it up before hunting a copy down.

My research left me feeling disappointed and uncertain about whether I should pick it up.  While the premise of a world where everyone is dying before their 25th birthday was intriguing,  a lot of discriminating readers seemed to think that the book was something of a joke, written by someone who doesn't fully understand what dystopia is or how to craft a universe.

And so, I tried to resist it.  But the cover kept calling to me until I couldn't stand it anymore and just had to pick the book up off the shelf.

I'm glad I did, and I'd like to make clear that, despite the complaints which do follow, I genuinely enjoyed this book and in my heart of hearts wish I could give it 5 stars.

First, the basic premise: due to genetic engineering gone horribly wrong, everyone in America is dying by their 25th birthday.  In reaction, people are marrying young and attempting to produce children.  However, some of the girls are being married off against their will into polygamous marriages.  Rhine is one such girl.  Kidnapped and sold into marriage to the very wealthy Linden at the age of 16, she is left to struggle with her desire to escape from her gilded prison, her twisted father-in law and his hunt for a cure, and her grim knowledge that her time on earth is limited.

Second, the rotten truth: everything you've heard about how the universe DeStefano creates is ridiculous, improbable, even impossible, is basically true.  However, before I commence complaining, I should say, without qualification, that if you are able to really suspend disbelief, the universe is fascinating.  Despite this, I was often left with the unsettling feeling that, were I to ask DeStefano herself a direct question about the universe, she would not know the answer.  Furthermore, I didn't ever feel like the universe DeStefano painted was one that could conceivably occur.  A world where all Americans embraced genetic engineering, could afford it, and not a single person chose to have a baby that was not genetically engineered not only didn't ring true- it was unfathomable.  Making it moreso was that this book is set what appears to be less than 100 years in the future.

Unlike some, I was not freaked out by the polyamorous or polygamous aspect of the book. I actually know people, in real life, who will admit to being polyamorous (though not polygamous), and who are not embarrassed by this.  In fact, I dated one once, though for a variety of reasons mostly centered around me and my old fashioned ideas, we were monogomous during our time together.  I'd actually be willing to let that go, even considering that, again, it is almost impossible to imagine a world where polyamory, much less polygamy, would be viewed as acceptable in America.  However, while I could understand how, in this universe, a 13 year old might marry, I couldn't understand how society had devolved to a point where it was acceptable for a 21 year old to sleep with a 13 year old.  I also couldn't understand why, if polygamous marriages were somehow vital to the survival of the race, some girls were just being killed while others were viewed as SO valuable as wombs.

 How we are supposed to accept that all of the world, other than parts of North America, are gone, is beyond me.  How we are supposed to accept that, after a flood, the parts of North America that remain are parts that would absolutely, 100% be underwater (Florida and New York, respectively) and not mountainous regions, is also beyond me.  This doesn't even touch on the science aspect of the story, which is a mess.

If any of this is likely to be a deal breaker for you, it's best that you just steer away from this book.

However, somewhat to my surprise, I found that it was not a deal breaker for me.

DeStefano's prose is steady and flowing, almost like a river. It lulls you into a sense of comfort and is genuinely pleasant to read.  However, she is also capable of creating waves and storms with her words, masterful at capturing the tensions beneath the surface and the calm before the storm. Her writing is crisp, her word choice is exquisite, and everything about her writing style screams to me that I want to read more by her. I devoured the book in two sittings, no small feat given how my life is currently structured, and am currently determined to get the next book in the series, Fever into my hands as soon as possible.

However, even more striking than DeStefano's prose is her masterful grasp of character.  It has been a long time since I read a book where I was truly invested in all the characters, both major and minor, and where those who I did not know much about, I wanted to know more about.  Rhine is a strong female character who is sure of what she wants and unfailingly human. I found it generally easy to identify with her, her reactions, and her hopes, fears, and dreams.  I could understand the conflict she felt about Linden and her determination to see her brother again was extremely touching.

I found DeStefano's sketches of Rhines's 'sister-wives', Cecily and Jenna, to be equally compelling.  They were well sketched characters who both grew enormously throughout the course of the book.  Cecily's transformation, in particular, was beautiful to watch, as she changed from a naive, somewhat selfish imp to a loving mother who was willing to make sacrifices for others.  Linden is a nuanced character and while we learned more and more about him as the book progressed, I was left feeling that there was more about him to learn and that I wanted DeStefano to have a chance to tell me, though I do think the book ended exactly where it should.

I do have some minor complaints about some of Rhine's actions- for instance, it did not make sense to me why she felt she could not tell Linden that she wanted to contact her brother, as I don't believe he would have denied her that.  In addition, her interactions with Gabriel, a servant at the house, did not move me to the extent that I think DeStefano hoped they would, and I had a hard time really believing that relationship.  However, overall, the characters and their relationships to one another were strong and believable.

I had to take a star off because of the problems with the world and some of my issues in understanding Rhine, but I have high hopes for the rest of the series and am really looking forward to whatever DeStefano does next.