By age sixteen, Rhine Ellery has four years left to live. She can thank modern science for this genetic time bomb. A botched effort to create a perfect race has left all males with a lifespan of 25 years, and females with a lifespan of 20 years. Geneticists are seeking a miracle antidote to restore the human race, desperate orphans crowd the population, crime and poverty have skyrocketed, and young girls are being kidnapped and sold as polygamous brides to bear more children.
When Rhine is kidnapped and sold as a bride, she vows to do all she can to escape. Her husband, Linden, is hopelessly in love with her, and Rhine can’t bring herself to hate him as much as she’d like to. He opens her to a magical world of wealth and illusion she never thought existed, and it almost makes it possible to ignore the clock ticking away her short life. But Rhine quickly learns that not everything in her new husband’s strange world is what it seems. Her father-in-law, an eccentric doctor bent on finding the antidote, is hoarding corpses in the basement. Her fellow sister wives are to be trusted one day and feared the next, and Rhine is desperate to communicate to her twin brother that she is safe and alive. Will Rhine be able to escape--before her time runs out?
Together with one of Linden's servants, Gabriel, Rhine attempts to escape just before her seventeenth birthday. But in a world that continues to spiral into anarchy, is there any hope for freedom?
I WAIT. They keep us in the dark for so long that we lose sense of our eyelids. We sleep huddled together like rats, staring out, and dream of our bodies swaying.
I know when one of the girls reaches a wall. She begins to pound and scream—there’s metal in the sound—but none of us help her. We’ve gone too long without speaking, and all we do is bury ourselves more into the dark.
The doors open.
The light is frightening. It’s the light of the world through the birth canal, and at once the blinding tunnel that comes with death. I recoil into the blankets with the other girls in horror, not wanting to begin or end.
We stumble when they let us out; we’ve forgotten how to use our legs. How long has it been—days? Hours? The big open sky waits in its usual place.
I stand in line with the other girls, and men in gray coats study us.
I’ve heard of this happening. Where I come from, girls have been disappearing for a long time. They disappear from their beds or from the side of the road. It happened to a girl in my neighborhood. Her whole family disappeared after that, moved away, either to find her or because they knew she would never be returned.
Now it’s my turn. I know girls disappear, but any number of things could come after that. Will I become a murdered reject? Sold into prostitution? These things have happened. There’s only one other option. I could become a bride. I’ve seen them on television, reluctant yet beautiful teenage brides, on the arm of a wealthy man who is approaching the lethal age of twenty-five.
The other girls never make it to the television screen. Girls who don’t pass their inspection are shipped to a brothel in the scarlet districts. Some we have found murdered on the sides of roads, rotting, staring into the searing sun because the Gatherers couldn’t be bothered to deal with them. Some girls disappear forever, and all their families can do is wonder.
The girls are taken as young as thirteen, when their bodies are mature enough to bear children, and the virus claims every female of our generation by twenty.
Our hips are measured to determine strength, our lips pried apart so the men can judge our health by our teeth. One of the girls vomits. She may be the girl who screamed. She wipes her mouth, trembling, terrified. I stand firm, determined to be anonymous, unhelpful.
I feel too alive in this row of moribund girls with their eyes half open. I sense that their hearts are barely beating, while mine pounds in my chest. After so much time spent riding in the darkness of the truck, we have all fused together. We are one nameless thing sharing this strange hell. I do not want to stand out. I do not want to stand out.
But it doesn’t matter. Someone has noticed me. A man paces before the line of us. He allows us to be prodded by the men in gray coats who examine us. He seems thoughtful and pleased.
His eyes, green, like two exclamation marks, meet mine. He smiles. There’s a flash of gold in his teeth, indicating wealth. This is unusual, because he’s too young to be losing his teeth. He keeps walking, and I stare at my shoes. Stupid! I should never have looked up. The strange color of my eyes is the first thing anyone ever notices.
He says something to the men in gray coats. They look at all of us, and then they seem to be in agreement. The man with gold teeth smiles in my direction again, and then he’s taken to another car that shoots up bits of gravel as it backs onto the road and drives away.
The vomit girl is taken back to the truck, and a dozen other girls with her; a man in a gray coat follows them in. There are three of us left, the gap of the other girls still between us. The men speak to one another again, and then to us. “Go,” they say, and we oblige. There’s nowhere to go but the back of an open limousine parked on the gravel. We’re off the road somewhere, not far from the highway. I can hear the faraway sounds of traffic. I can see the evening city lights beginning to appear in the distant purple haze. It’s nowhere I recognize; a road this desolate is far from the crowded streets back home.
Go. The two other chosen girls move before me, and I’m the last to get into the limousine. There’s a tinted glass window that separates us from the driver. Just before someone shuts the door, I hear something inside the van where the remaining girls were herded.
It’s the first of what I know will be a dozen more gunshots.
* * *
I awake in a satin bed, nauseous and pulsating with sweat. My first conscious movement is to push myself to the edge of the mattress, where I lean over and vomit onto the lush red carpet. I’m still spitting and gagging when someone begins cleaning up the mess with a dishrag.
“Everyone handles the sleep gas differently,” he says softly.
“Sleep gas?” I splutter, and before I can wipe my mouth on my lacy white sleeve, he hands me a cloth napkin—also lush red.
“It comes out through the vents in the limo,” he says. “It’s so you won’t know where you’re going.”
I remember the glass window separating us from the front of the car. Airtight, I assume. Vaguely I remember the whooshing of air coming through vents in the walls.
“One of the other girls,” the boy says as he sprays white foam onto the spot where I vomited, “she almost threw herself out the bedroom window, she was so dis-oriented. The window’s locked, of course. Shatterproof.” Despite the awful things he’s saying, his voice is low, possibly even sympathetic.
I look over my shoulder at the window. Closed tight. The world is bright green and blue beyond it, brighter than my home, where there’s only dirt and the remnants of my mother’s garden that I’ve failed to revive.
Somewhere down the hall a woman screams. The boy tenses for a moment. Then he resumes scrubbing away the foam.
“I can help,” I offer. A moment ago I didn’t feel guilty about ruining anything in this place; I know I’m here against my will. But I also know this boy isn’t to blame. He can’t be one of the Gatherers in gray who brought me here. Maybe he was also brought here against his will. I haven’t heard of teenage boys disappearing, but up until fifty years ago, when the virus was discovered, girls were also safe. Everyone was safe.
“No need. It’s all done,” he says. And when he moves the rag away, there’s not so much as a stain. He pulls a handle out of the wall, and a chute opens; he tosses the rags into it, lets go, and the chute clamps shut. He tucks the can of white foam into his apron pocket and returns to what he was doing. He picks up a silver tray from where he’d placed it on the floor, and brings it to my night table. “If you’re feeling better, there’s some lunch for you. Nothing that will make you fall asleep again, I promise.” He looks like he might smile. Just almost. But he maintains a concentrated gaze as he lifts a metal lid off a bowl of soup and another off a small plate of steaming vegetables and mashed potatoes cradling a lake of gravy. I’ve been stolen, drugged, locked away in this place, yet I’m being served a gourmet meal. The sentiment is so vile I could almost throw up again.
“That other girl—the one who tried to throw herself out the window—what happened to her?” I ask. I don’t dare ask about the woman screaming down the hall. I don’t want to know about her.
“She’s calmed down some.”
“And the other girl?”
“She woke up this morning. I think the House Governor took her to tour the gardens.”
House Governor. I remember my despair and crash against the pillows. House Governors own mansions. They purchase brides from Gatherers, who patrol the streets looking for ideal candidates to kidnap. The merciful ones will sell the rejects into prostitution, but the ones I encountered herded them into the van and shot them all. I heard that first gunshot over and over in my medicated dreams.
“How long have I been here?” I say.
“Two days,” the boy says. He hands me a steaming cup, and I’m about to refuse it when I see the tea bag string dangling over the side, smell the spices. Tea. My brother, Rowan, and I had it with our breakfast each morning, and with dinner each night. The smell is like home. My mother would hum as she waited by the stove for the water to boil.
Blearily I sit up and take the tea. I hold it near my face and breathe the steam in through my nose. It’s all I can do not to burst into tears. The boy must sense that the full impact of what has happened is reaching me. He must sense that I’m on the verge of doing something dramatic like crying or trying to fling myself out the window like that other girl, because he’s already moving for the door. Quietly, without looking back, he leaves me to my grief. But instead of tears, when I press my face against the pillow, a horrible, primal scream comes out of me. It’s unlike anything I thought myself capable of. Rage, unlike anything I’ve ever known.
Reading Group Guide for Wither by Lauren DeStefano
ABOUT THE BOOK
Rhine Ellery is sixteen years old and has four years to live. She was born into a genetically engineered world in which an attempt to perfect the species and make people immune to all disease has shortened human lifespan: A virus now kills women at the age of twenty and men at the age of twenty-five. Desperate to extend the family lineage, powerful families force young women into polygamous marriages. Rhine is one of three new brides who are held captive, but lavishly cared for, in a sprawling mansion. The three wives—Rhine, Jenna, and Cecily—live in a rich and seemingly perfect world filled with beautiful clothes, wonderful foods, and lush gardens. But danger lurks around the corner when Rhine develops a relationship with a house servant, Gabriel, and starts to suspect that her father-in-law is conducting mysterious research in the basement of the mansion in the name of finding an antidote. Rhine’s best chance of escaping is to win her husband Linden’s favor as his first wife and, together with Gabriel, plot her getaway.
How might society be different if scientists could create a generation of human beings immune to all disease? Would such a world be ideal? Why or why not?
Rhine is snatched off the streets by Gatherers and wakes up in a satin bed in a mansion owned by a House Governor. What does she remember about being taken captive? Why is she being held in the mansion? Why is she considered to be one of the lucky girls?
In Rhine’s world, women die at the age of twenty and men die when they reach twenty-five. What accounts for this short lifespan? Why is early marriage encouraged by the wealthy?
Who is Lady Rose and why is she ill? How does her character contribute to the story’s plot? To Rhine’s understanding of her new life?
Describe Rhine’s life prior to being taken by the Gatherers. Who were her parents? Explain what happened to them. How did she and her twin brother, Rowan, survive on their own?
Rhine initially feels disdain for Linden, her new husband and son of the House Governor. Why is she contemptuous? How do her feelings change as she gets to know him? What information does she eventually learn that enables her to see him in a different light? In what way is Linden a victim?
Rhine is one of three new brides for Linden. Compare and contrast Rhine, Cecily, and Jenna. How does each view being forced into marriage? How do the wives grow together as time passes? How does each adjust to and/or cope with her new lifestyle?
How does Rhine become Linden’s first wife? How does this role enable her to plan her escape?
Rhine becomes attracted to Gabriel, a house servant. What draws them together and how is their relationship dangerous? How does Gabriel help Rhine?
House Governor Vaughn claims to be working on an antidote that will cure future generations of the virus that kills young men and women in their prime years. What mysteries surround the basement of the mansion? What fears does Rhine have about his intentions?
What physical feature sets Rhine apart from the other two new brides? Why might this physical attribute be desirable?
Compare and contrast House Governor Vaughn and his son, Linden. How does each view the three wives?
Rhine has multiple dreams in the story. How do the dreams contribute to the story and to the reader’s understanding of Rhine?
One can argue that the mansion represents an ideal world. Rhine, Jenna, and Cecily have everything they can possibly imagine. They have stunning clothes and amazing foods to eat and a beautiful home with gardens. Holograms are even used to export them to other experiences and places. Are any of the three girls suited for this life? If so, who and why? In what way has Linden been sheltered by this lifestyle?
When Rhine is discussing escaping with Gabriel, she says, “You’ve been captive for so long that you don’t even realize you want freedom anymore.” How might this statement apply to Cecily? How might it apply to Linden? Cite examples in the story in which Rhine is almost taken in by her new surroundings. What thoughts pull her back to reality?
How do Rhine and Gabriel plot to escape? What character traits enable Rhine to go through with the plan?
Research advances in human cloning and genetics. Prepare a presentation on the possibilities that exist today and the ethical questions these possibilities raise.
Choose a media form (narrative, art, computer program, etc.) and create your own ideal world. What holograms would you have in your world? What would the people and the environment be like? What foods would exist? How would people spend their time?
Research human trafficking in America. What organizations and aid exist in the U.S. for individuals who are held in bondage? How might we better educate people about human trafficking in the U.S.? Develop a class presentation on your findings.
Read Sold by Patricia McCormick or a similar book on people being sold into human trafficking, prostitution, or otherwise being held against their will. What similarities do you find in the treatment of women and children? What differences exist?
We sometimes read/hear news stories of individuals who have been kidnapped, and they do not seem to resist or attempt to escape (Patty Hearst, Elizabeth Smart). Reexamine the kidnapping and subsequent treatment of Rhine, Jenna, and Cecily. In reviewing the novel, prepare responses to the following questions for group discussion: How is each girl affected psychologically? How is each “groomed” to mold into her new life? How do each girl’s personality traits affect her thinking? How does each girl adjust or conform to her new life? Which girl is the easiest target and why?
Guide written by by Pam B. Cole, Professor of English Education & Literacy Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, GA.
This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.
Lauren DeStefano is the author of The Internment Chronicles and the New York Times bestselling Chemical Garden trilogy, which includes Wither, Fever, and Sever. She earned her BA in English with a concentration in creative writing from Albertus Magnus College in Connecticut. Visit her at LaurenDeStefano.com.
A “harrowing debut . . . DeStefano has an observant and occasionally pitiless eye, chronicling the cruelties, mercies, and inconsistencies of her young characters. . . . It will be intriguing to see how DeStefano develops [the larger world] as this promising trilogy progresses.” – *PW STARRED review, January 10, 2010
"Creepy and elegant, shocking and romantic, dreadful and rewarding, and delivers unexpected twists. It'll leave you longing for book two." --Lisa McMann, New York Times bestselling author of the WAKE trilogy and CRYER'S CROSS
“Lauren DeStefano crafts an all too believable future. I loved the world, the romance, the writing -- exactly the kind of book I've been craving to read.” --Carrie Ryan, New York Times bestselling author of THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH
"This beautifully-written debut fantasy, with its intriguing world-building, well-developed characters and intricate plot involving flashbacks as well as edge-of-the-seat suspense, will keep teens riveted to the plight of Rhine and her sister wives. The compelling cover will draw them in and the cliffhanger ending will leave them eagerly awaiting volumes two and three of The Chemical Garden Trilogy. This thought-provoking novel will also stimulate discussion in science and ethics classes."--VOYA
“I really enjoyed Wither, I just couldn't put it down! Rhine is such an amazing main character. She is strong, passionate and determined…. Wither is nothing short of breathtaking. “ —sparkling-reviews.blogspot.com
“Wither is an exceptional novel that begins with a bang and doesn't let you go--it's gut-wrenching, shocking, incredible, and completely and utterly absorbing all at once…. DeStefano is a fearless writer, and though it is firmly its own book, Wither will remind readers of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.” —TheCompulsiveReader.com
[A] thought-provoking debut, reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale with a touch of Big Love . . . Rhine’s fight for freedom against the clock—and the dissecting table—will leave readers eager for the sequel. Give this one to fans of The Hunger Games trilogy or Ally Condie’s Matched (2010). - KIRKUS, February 1, 2011
"[Rhine] proves herself to be a heroine who faces her situation with spirit and cleverness. The trapped bride and mysterious husband are straight out of Gothic romances. By stirring in elements of sheer creepiness with dystopia and the hot topic of polygamy, DeStefano creates a story that should have broad appeal." --School Library Journal
"This absorbing page-turner may remind some readers of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games with its fearless heroine, sinister villain, bleak landscape and poignant romance. Wither is less violent but is in many ways even more terrifying as DeStefano proves herself a master of plot, setting, character and psychological suspense." --The Buffalo News