The Chemical Garden Trilogy, Book One
Simon & Schuster: 358 pp., $17.99, ages 14 and up
The strong dystopian themes in today's young-adult books are frequently infused with feminism. Set in environmentally degraded or post-apocalyptic Americas, their young heroines are feisty. Their missions: overthrowing corrupt, entrenched patriarchies.
So it's been with Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games," Ally Condie's "Matched" and now "Wither," the first book in a wonderfully creepy new series from debut novelist Lauren DeStefano. In this kickoff to her Chemical Garden Trilogy, 16-year-old Rhine Ellery has just been taken by a Gatherer who kidnaps girls once they're able to bear children — murdering those who are undesirable, selling others into prostitution and marrying off the rest to make babies and perpetuate the human race.
Seventy years earlier, natural conception was shunned in favor of perfectly engineered embryos. An unintended consequence of those First Generation test-tube babies is the short lives of their offspring. A virus claims men at age 25 and women when they're 20, usually in a fit of bloody coughs and fever.
Females, once prized as equal members of society, are now valued for their appearance rather than intelligence — for the strength of their hips, not their character. Rhine has the misfortune of being both beautiful and strong-headed.
Rhine is kidnapped from her Manhattan home and forced to live in a sprawling Florida mansion with two other teenage girls, all of whom are dressed in bridal gowns while sedated and married off to the same man, Linden. Rhine's only duty is to look good and play nice with her new husband, who is the House Governor.
That mandate is enforced by Linden's father, Housemaster Vaughn. A geriatric First Generation scientist who, unbeknownst to his son, arranged for the brides' kidnappings, he runs a lab — and a morgue — in the mansion basement, where he's working to find an antidote that will keep his son alive.
Rhine senses "there are ugly, dangerous things lurking beneath the beauty of this mansion. And I'd like to be far away from here before ever knowing what they are."
Of course, Rhine dreams of escape. She isn't the first prisoner, er, wife, to attempt it. But the mansion's doors and windows are locked. Rhine, like her sister wives, is allowed outside only in the company of her husband, who's been making the rounds of his wives' bedrooms. After knocking up 13-year-old Cecily, his conjugal visits continue with 19-year-old Jenna. Rhine, so far, has held him off by stringing him along, the better to indulge her flirtations with a young, attractive servant named Gabriel.
Written from Rhine's perspective, "Wither" is taut and well-paced. Throughout the action, there's the ticking time bomb of a life with a set expiration date that makes Rhine's situation all the more urgent. DeStefano's writing is, like her heroine, intelligent and questioning as she delves into the thought processes of an imprisoned and devalued woman navigating a world that is coming undone.
Natural degradation exists in strong parallel with sexism in "Wither." The mansion in which she lives is frequently deluged by Category 3 hurricanes — and drifts of snow. The cities are so polluted with chemicals, plants no longer grow. In place of actual nature, there are holograms to create the illusion of an ocean populated with dolphins or a forest of trees.
A wonderfully toxic brew of genetic meddling and polygamist gamesmanship, "Wither" is an exciting and powerfully written addition to the increasingly packed shelves of dystopian YA.