“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.