Wither (Chemical Garden) - Lauren DeStefano Wither was a hard book for me to rate and review. Objectively it probably only deserves two stars considering all of the flaws, yet I rated it three stars because I found myself strangely entertained. Going into the book, I had low expectations based on some of the negative reviews I'd read, which was why I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

Wither is about a world where genetic tinkering has led to a virus that causes men to die at age twenty five and women to die at age twenty. Adolescent girls are kidnapped and sold as wives to wealthy men, where they live out their days baring children and attending parties. Sixteen year old Rhine is taken from New York City and sent to Florida, where she is forced to marry twenty year old Linden. As Linden's wife she lives in the lap of luxury, but what she longs for is freedom and to see her twin brother again. The story follows her plots to escape, and her relationships with her fellow sister wives, a serving boy with whom she has an instant connection, and her husband.

Characterization in this novel is a mixed bag. I really liked Rhine's sister wives, who came across as well rounded and three dimensional. Their backstories seem to adequately explain their personalities and they were, for the most part, consistent. Less intriguing were Rhine's two love interests, Gabriel, the servant, and Linden, her husband. Gabriel didn't seem to have much of personality, and his relationship with Rhine could have used some more development, but they did have a few good scenes together and he wasn't an abusive jerk. Linden, however, came across as much too naive to be believable, and Rhine's attraction to him, and DeStefano's attempt at making him a viable love interest, were completely lost on me. He was a weakling at best, and a child molester at worst.

Rhine wasn't very compelling either, but I didn't dislike her. I found her to be rather dull, and somewhat inconsistent in her thoughts. Although I had trouble connecting with Rhine as a character, I did connect with her relationships with her sister wives. DeStefano does a good job of showing their sisterly bonds, and I liked that she focused on those relationships rather than the romantic ones. Rhine puts her love for her family above her romantic relationships. It puts Wither above many other YA novels where the heroine seems to forget about everyone else after she meets her love interest.

Wither's biggest weakness is its world building. The book is littered with scientific and historical inaccuracies. Other reviews found here and here have thoroughly covered these errors so I won't go into much detail, but I can't help mentioning the absurdity of a virus that kills at a specific age. DeStefano would have been better off explaining it as a genetic disease, and having a general timeframe for when it typically kills. A disease does not know how many years you've been on this earth, but it can fail to develop until certain developmental milestones are met, which would occur at different ages for different people. Diseases like Huntington's and Schizophrenia, where the onset of symptoms is usually in adulthood, vary widely in their age of onset with some individuals showing signs even in childhood.

In addition to the scientific and historical inaccuracies, I also had a hard time believing that the social structure could have evolved as it did. For example, in DeStefano's culture, new buildings are celebrated with lavish parties, yet new births are not. How does this make any sense? In a world in which reproductive years are severely limited, and women are dying before their most fertile age (usually the early twenties), it stands to reason that births would be extremely precious. New births would signify more hope for the survival of the species than new buildings would.

Lastly, those looking for a book with deep messages about sexism and the objectification of women should look elsewhere. The only message that is effectively conveyed in Wither is that freedom is important. Rhine constantly reminds the reader that the gilded cage she lives in is still a cage, and that she would rather be free to live in poverty and fear, than live lavishly against her will. Although this message could have been connected to modern feminist issues, DeStefano never makes that leap, and the message is weakened by her failure to show the darker side of losing freedom. Those looking for a deeper exploration of the objectification of women, and a realistic portrayal of the psychological effects of slavery, should read The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood and skip this one.