Wither (Chemical Garden)

Wither (Chemical Garden) - Lauren DeStefano 2011 was supposed to be the year of the dystopian YA but for most of it I remained unconvinced. Granted, publishers were pushing these novels to the forefront with often elaborate publicity campaigns, yet the bestseller lists for the most part remained dominated by continuing series. This novel in particular was heavily buzzed about online and has received some very mixed reviews from my co-bloggers, so it seemed like the ideal book to christen my new Kindle with. How were the results?Once again, I find myself underwhelmed with what dystopian YA is offering me. This Handmaid’s Tale reminiscent story holds much promise but falls trap to the same pitfalls that have been so prevalent in the dystopian YAs I have read in the past year. First, the positives. DeStefano has good control over her prose, which has real flourishes of style and beauty. With a stronger story, I think it could work wonders. It remains very readable even during the slow periods, of which there are more than a few. The foundations of any good novel lie in its world-building. This is a necessity for novels such as “Wither”, especially since so many dystopian YAs these days rely on a high-concept “What if?” that’s easy to market. I have nothing wrong with this and many of these concepts are interesting, as this one most definitely is. But the concept has to be built upon and developed into something more watertight. Real societies are not built around one concept. They’d fall apart quicker than you could see it happening. Unfortunately, this is the biggest issue I had with “Wither”. The science is questionable at best. The virus/disease (it’s never fully explained) that wipes out close to the world’s population so quickly and thoroughly was so implausible from the beginning. Age specific diseases that strike suddenly and almost exactly on one’s 20th/25th birthday never seemed like anything other than a plot convenient time-bomb. The effect of the cancer cure on the older generation who have survived was also sketchy at best. Added to this were the non-existent effects of the polar ice-caps melting. For one thing, the book’s setting would most likely be underwater, as would New York, another setting. It is briefly mentioned that North America is the only surviving place on Earth, but never why this is the case. Overall, I had no handle on this world or why its high concept “what-if?” had resulted in the world shown to us. I saw hints of what DeStefano may have been trying to do – rise of the upper class who can afford to survive, subjugation & exploitation of the younger, at risk but replaceable generation by the older one, women becoming valuable commodities – but more page time is dedicated to describing the opulent lives Rhine and her fellow wives live rather than these. The potential is there and it is great, but the time and research are lacking.Character-wise, I found our heroine to be pretty stock. Her sister wives had much more potential but only Cecily, the 13 year old, was developed beyond the initial stereotype. The relationships between the three wives were one of the more interesting elements of the novel and managed to occasionally elicit sympathy and understanding. The romance felt unnecessary and boring since the romantic interest was as dull as our heroine, and the frequent threats of a love triangle with the husband did nothing to make me sympathise with Rhine. Indeed, Rhine’s situation is one of the more infuriating elements of the novel. The fact that she remains a virgin throughout the novel while the 13 year old girl was impregnated was completely unbelievable and set up that ridiculous dichotomy of ‘purity’ and ‘goodness’ being connected to virginity. What does that say about Cecily, who is at least developed enough so that her situation is sympathetic and fitting with the dark, unforgiving nature of the world that DeStefano is trying to create? The preoccupation with procreation was questionable – why would 20 year old men be so interested in having children they’ll never see grow up? Such mind-sets would require more than 70 years of mental conditioning. It’s hinted that Vaughn, the closest thing the novel has to a protagonist, is doing this with his son but once again, we see little true evidence of this.“Wither” is a well written novel in terms of prose and is never boring, but the unconvincing world-building and plot-holes left me extremely unsatisfied. The novel, despite being populated by characters that are ticking time-bombs, lacks a real sense of urgency or hopelessness. The phrase “all style and no substance” has been overused but I cannot think of another one to fit this novel. The potential is definitely there but the work needs to be put in.2.5/5.