This book makes me want to sigh. It’s a sigh-along book. Because it kind of drained my physical-world energy out from me with every chapter. It funnelled it into only eyes and ears that hover like the remnants of the Cheshire cat over the shoulder of a character living in a different dimension. And, I did a lot of sighing, out of pity for the characters. So much tragedy one gets desensitized. It seems as if authors are fond of putting youth into terrible dystopian futures. And it seems as if I cannot get enough of it. I’m in a brain fog. Some books do that to me. They leave you with a lost, floaty feeling, and sometimes you walk around with a bee buzzing dazedly around your head. Buzz buzz, but really the bee and I are thinking about nothing.
That’s how I felt after reading Wither by Lauren DeStefano. Buzz buzz.
Lately, I’ve been avoiding books with one-word titles and melodramatic looking covers. But I got over that.
I feel myself inching towards liking the book as I write this review, simply because for a few hours today, I was completely absorbed. It’s nice to be absorbed by something. I am ashamed of my bird-brainedness. But at the same time, I’m left with this feeling of emptiness. This feeling is almost the exact feeling I felt after reading Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Just, nothing. Though, the ending of this book is much more hopeful, and the book, overall, is much less depressing.
Why did I feel depressed? Because almost everyone in the book seemed pretty miserable, or else, afraid to let themselves be genuinely and completely happy for longer than a brief moment. Which is understandable because: A) the world is pretty much destroyed, sunken into the sea, and what remains around them is dying in a chemical haze. B) the youth are dying in bloody fits of coughing and many of them are orphans having to hide out in their crumbling homes or in unwelcoming orphanages or out on the cold streets. C) scientists that are trying to find the antidote to this disease of the youth are either madmen willing to commit any amounts of cruelty on their human test subjects or else they die from bombings unleashed by hopeless pro-naturalism protestors. D) girls are kidnapped from the streets and sold as brides to young husband-to-be’s, with the unwanted potential brides brutally disposed of. It’s hard to find the light at the end of the tunnel in this case. But there is love! Bought love, pretend love for survival, and real love that creeps up between two people and becomes a complication. Yes, there is love. Love causes a lot of trouble but it also appears to save the day!
This book feels like a re-telling of “Beauty and the Beast”. We have a girl trapped inside a big mansion, wishing she could go home. She can’t let herself feel pity for her captor, she can’t believe love might sprout from this pity, she can’t let the cage that keeps her in the mansion enclose her heart, too. Otherwise she might never have the will to escape. Add to that the fact that she needs find a way into her husband’s favor so that she might have a chance to escape so she must feign love. Rhine and Linden, her husband, have an interesting relationship. Rhine is a girl who has seen dangerous, dark, grim freedom and Linden is a boy who lives in a glorified invisible cage and believes this is freedom. There is so much Rhine should tell Linden, so much he doesn’t know of how real and cruel and beautiful the outside world is. I suppose I should hate Linden, but I don’t really. He’s just so…pathetic, like his eyes are always dreaming…looking for some semblance of an immortal love in a world that is far too transient and unreal. He seems so emotionally fragile and he is sweet, though how can he conveniently forget the truth of the matter? That his wives are locked up in the house and not allowed to leave on their own free will? That he paid a handsome sum for his wives and the love they show him is probably twisted with hate? Can he really be that thick-headed? I suppose his fascination for Victorian ivy-trellised homes should be an indication of what kind of character he is.
For me, Gabriel added another interesting tension to the story, just by being a love interest (Linden’s got to be pretty confident of himself to have menservants serving the ladies at all hours of the day). But, aside from being another love interest, I wasn’t really compelled by Rhine and Gabriel’s tryst. It seemed like he was only there so that Rhine could differentiate between love that she chose to happen and love that might have snuck up on her while she was resisting. I mean, aside from wealth, what’s stopping Gabriel from becoming a multiple-wife kind of guy, just like Linden? For some reason, because girls have a shorter lifespan than guys, harems must be formed. I guess it’s the ol’ baby pumping factor. A girl can only pump out so many babies to save the human species at a time. It’s always good to have backup. But still, if Linden wasn’t so wealthy and brainwashed to a certain degree by his dad, he wouldn’t be such a bad guy.
Housemaster Vaughn, the evil scientist with the dry hands and dark cloud of threats, is Linden’s father and holds a psychological power over the inhabitants of the mansion. The book hints that Dr. Vaughn does unspeakable things to the dead corpses of Linden’s past wives and children, but that doesn’t creep me out (afterall, if he did intend to use them to try to find the antidote, by all means!). He does other coldblooded things, though, many other despicable things. And somehow he keeps Linden oblivious to this and no one seems willing to pop that bubble for him. Whenever I come across characters like this, I wish someone would just go bananas and all out rebel and do something crazy and ruffle that cool plumage and shake the hot blood back into him.
The sister wives in this book seem pretty well-behaved. Not much backstabbing, I guess enough terrible things are happening without the added element of not being able to find a friend to share your woes. Each of the wives has a wifely function which fits with their personalities so there isn’t much clashing. In fact, the girls seem to wear the pants in the relationship and often bully Linden into giving them more rights. Good for you, girls. Except these rights are pathetically small and the real person they should be convincing is Dr. Vaughn. If Housemaster Vaughn wasn’t around, though, Linden would probably be reduced to a tearful mess (he seems like a bleeding heart type) whereby the clever girls would run the household and turn it into a sting operation to free other young girls from the grips of the kidnapping Gatherers. But, Housemaster Vaughn is around, unfortunately, and he’s much too sinister and clever to be subverted that easily. Besides not all the wives believe he’s just messing around, wasting time with corpses in the basement. Some of the girls think he’s actually working on finding the antidote and that it will happen in their lifetime. That hope, that dream of an antidote, keeps some of the girls docile, anyway.
Overall, the book is a slow dreamer’s glide down a darkly lit hallway full of doors leading to things you half want but know can never be real. You get the pretty dresses, the warm bubble baths, the illusion of wealth and splendour and, if you wish it, you could be the princess of a fairytale. But that’s not what Rhine wants, foolish girl. She wants the yucky, cold, half-starving life she had before, where her and her brother had to watch each other’s backs all day for hungry desperate children with lock-picking skills. She wants to dip her feet into the toxic ocean and catch mutated fish. Half of me wonders if she’d be so absolutely needing to escape if she never had a brother to escape to and if she never found out what Housemaster Vaughn is really capable of doing.
Anyway, I finished this book and the cliffhanger wasn’t bad at all. So, I know there is a second one coming out in 2012 called Fever, I believe. In total there are 3 books since it is called the Chemical Garden Trilogy…
Rating: 4 June beans left
For a while we say nothing. I listen to the rhythm of his breaths, and ignore the nearly imperceptible flutter in my chest brought on by his presence. The back of his hand just barely brushes mine. An orange blossom falls over us on a perfect diagonal.
“I’m dreading fall. It is a terrifying season,” he says finally. “Everything shriveling up and dying.”
I don’t know how to answer. Fall has always been my favorite season. The time when everything bursts with its last beauty, as if nature had been saving up all year for the grand finale. I’ve never thought to be frightened of it. My greatest fear is another year of my life passing by while I’m so far from home.
Suddenly the clouds seem very high above us. They’re moving over us in an arch, circling the planet. They have seen abysmal oceans and charred, scorched islands. They have seen how we destroyed the world. If I could see everything, as clouds do, would I swirl around this remaining continent, still so full of color and life and seasons, wanting to protect it? Or would I just laugh at the futility of it all, and meander onward, down the earth’s sloping atmosphere?
Linden takes in another breath, and he musters up the courage to put his hand over mine. I don’t resist. Everything in Linden Ashby’s world is fake, an illusion, but the sky and the orange blossoms are real. His body beside me is real.
“What are you thinking?” he asks me. For all of our marriage I have never allowed myself to be honest with him, but here, now, I want to tell him what’s on my mind.
“I was wondering if we’re worth saving,” I say.
“What do you mean?”
I shake my head against the ground, feel the back of my skull rolling along the cold, hard earth. “It’s nothing.”
“Not nothing,” he says. “What did you mean?” His voice isn’t intrusive. It’s gentle, curious.
“It’s just all these doctors and engineers are looking for an antidote,” I say. “They’ve been at it for years. But is it really worth it? Can we even be fixed?”
Linden is quiet for a while, and just when I’m sure he’s going to condemn me for what I’ve said or, I don’t know, defend the work of his madman father, he squeezes my hand. “I’ve asked myself the same question,” he says.
“Really?” We turn at the same time and meet each other’s eyes, but I feel my cheeks starting to burn, and I look back to the sky.
“I thought I was going to die, once,” he says. “When I was young. I had a high fever. I remember my father gave me an injection that was supposed to cure it – something experimental he’d been working on, of course, but it only aggravated things.”
Vaughn could have been pumping any number of twisted experiments into his son’s veins, for all I trust him, but I don’t say this. Linden continues, “For days I was in some halfway land between reality and delirium. Everything seemed so frightening, I couldn’t wake myself up. But for someplace far away I could hear my father and some of his doctors calling me. ‘Linden. Linden, come back to us. Open your eyes.’ And I remember that I hesitated. I didn’t know if I should go back. I didn’t know if I wanted to live in a world of certain death. Of fevers and nightmares.”
There’s a long silence, and then I say, “But you came back.”
“Yes,” he says. And then, very quietly, “But that wasn’t my decision.”
He weaves his fingers through mine, and I allow it, feel the clammy warmth of his palm against mine. Flush. Alive. Eventually I realize that I am holding on to him just as tightly as he holds on to me. And here we are: two small dying things, as the world ends around us like falling autumn leaves.
Also, I’m passing on Nomansland by Lesley Hauge (review of it here). If you’re interested in reading it, shoot me an email by the end of this week (this_is_shar[at]live[dot]com).