The Elementals: Belongs up there with my favorites

The Elementals by Francesca Lia BlockThe Elementals by Francesca Lia Block

“Add in the way college isolated you, left you feeling as if the rest of the world, including your past and your family, was just a dream compared to what you read in your books and on the faces of the other students, and anything could happen.”

I’ve long had a thing for college stories. I loved being in college and I always enjoy getting to vicariously revisit it in the pages of a novel. And it’s such a liminal time, which makes it a great setting for a story. I remember being giddy with the knowledge that I could now go anywhere I wanted and do anything I wanted and no one could stop me, but at the same time still so unsure of myself that I wasn’t quite sure who I was or what I actually wanted to do with that newfound freedom. College campuses, too, often have a rich vein of folklore that lends itself well to fantasy.

There’s another reason, too, that Francesca Lia Block’s The Elementals appeals to me. If someone were to invent a new genre called “Are There Fairies, Or Are Our Lives Just Really Messed Up?”, that would be the first shelf I’d gravitate toward in the bookstore. I can’t get enough of these sorts of novels where fantasy is interwoven with real-life problems, and the reader is never quite sure how much of the fantasy element “really happened” and how much is a way to find some comfort in an awful situation.

So it’s probably not surprising that I loved The Elementals. Block tells the story of Ariel, a troubled young woman who goes away to college at Berkeley while reeling from the unsolved abduction of her best friend, Jeni, and her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis. Jeni was last seen at Berkeley on a school trip, and that’s why Ariel wants to go to school there — in the hopes of finding Jeni or at least learning what happened to her. She’s already desperately lonely, and she finds college a lonely place too; she’s bullied by her roommate and some other students in her dorm. Starving for human connection, Ariel is drawn into a group of eccentric grad students who take her under their wing but make increasingly unsettling demands of her. Oh, and they seem to have unusual powers, and they believe Ariel does too.

The Elementals follows Ariel through huge changes in her life and in her personality. It’s a coming of age story and she truly grows up within these pages. This is nowhere clearer than in her relationship with her mother; Ariel’s initial response to her mother’s illness is immature and somewhat self-centered, and by the end of the book she’s her mom’s biggest supporter. She also develops more of a spine and, while she still desires love and acceptance, is no longer willing to sacrifice so much for it as she was in the beginning.

I’ve read some reviews criticizing Ariel for getting into dangerous situations by not really having a sense of self-preservation. This is something that often annoys me in books, but in this case felt like an organic part of Ariel’s character. Especially at the novel’s start, she’s so desperate to know what happened to Jeni that I think she’d be willing to risk having the same thing happen to her, if it could at least bring her some answers and closure. Then, she makes some questionable decisions because she thinks her new friends are her only chance at having friends at all. And, too, I kind of related to some of her crazy choices — for example, I don’t think I realized until college that I was “supposed” to be afraid of walking alone at night. I’d use that heady freedom to go wandering around, and then afterward people would tell me I should have been scared.

Block’s writing is beautiful; it’s highly stylized and won’t be for everyone, but if you like your prose lush, you’ll like this. Block ties in some fairy tale and mythological themes and spins a story with ambiguities that will leave you thinking and wondering after you’ve finished the book.

This is a novel for readers who enjoyed Elizabeth Hand’s Waking the Moon, Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, and I think also Jennifer McMahon’s Don’t Breathe a Word. These are all favorites of mine, and The Elementals feels like it belongs right there with them. If you like rich prose and ambiguous supernatural elements and angsty young girls’ coming of age stories, this one’s for you.

A note on age appropriateness: Block has written many novels for young adults, but this one is classified as an adult novel and does include explicit sexual content.

The Elementals  — (2012) Publisher: From a star YA author – an adult novel about a student, haunted by the disappearance of a friend, who must face the truth. The Elementals is on one level an intriguing coming-of-age novel about a young woman, Ariel Silverman, facing the challenges of her first years away at college in Berkeley, California, while her mother battles cancer at home in Los Angeles. But the book takes on deeper, stranger meanings when we realize that Ariel is haunted by the disappearance of her best friend, Jeni, who vanished without a trace a few years before, closing Ariel’s heart and changing her forever. Ariel wonders if she will ever be fully alive, until she meets three mysterious, beautiful and seductive young people living in a strange old house in the Berkeley hills. Through them Ariel will unravel the mystery of her best friend’s disappearance and face a chilling choice.

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KELLY LASITER is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

View all posts by Kelly Lasiter

2 comments

  1. This sounds marvelous. Thanks, Kelly, for lengthening my list of books to read by yet another one!

    • Very interesting–you’ve got me wanting to read all these books you mention, particularly since I love coming of age movies and novels but don’t know a lot of coming of age fantasy novels unless they are specifically written for young adults (in fact, I prefer young adult SFF novels more than adult fantasy fiction). So, I believe Harry Potter is brilliant, as is Lloyd Alexander’s series, His Dark Materials, and Wrinkle in Time. I have even taught Ender’s Game at the college level even though it’s thought of as having a primary audience that is younger than college students. But campus novels for adults in the fantasy genre? Sounds like a great sub-genre I’d like to know more about.

      So, thank you for this review and mentioning the other books!

      (BTW, I accidentally first commented to this review under Waking the Moon. In that comment, I listed my all-time favorite coming of age movies, as well as my all-time favorite coming of age novel: Emma.)

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