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What if you knew exactly when you’d die? The first book of The Chemical Garden Trilogy.

By age sixteen, Rhine Ellery has four years left to live. A botched effort to create a perfect race has left all males born with a lifespan of 25 years, and females a lifespan of 20 years—leaving the world in a state of panic. Geneticists seek 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 sold as a bride, she vows to do all she can to escape. Yet 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 has no way to communicate to her twin brother that she is safe and alive.

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 distant 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


“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. Air tight, 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 disoriented.

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—he’s too young, possibly my age. 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

Reading Group Guide for Wither by Lauren DeStefano




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.

About The Author

© 2011 Ali Smith

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

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (December 6, 2011)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781442409064
  • Grades: 9 and up
  • Ages: 14 - 99
  • Lexile ® HL800L The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®

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Awards and Honors

  • Soaring Eagle Book Award Nominee (WY)
  • North Carolina Young Adult Book Award Nominee
  • ALA Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults - Top Ten
  • ALA/YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults - Top Ten
  • ALA/YALSA Teens' Top Ten - NOMINEE

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More books in this series: The Chemical Garden Trilogy