Because I enjoyed reading Dangerous Angels (the YA Weetzie Bat books collected) and because Jenny liked her newest novel, I picked up Francesca Lia Block’s The Elementals when I saw it at the library.
Like the Weetzie Bat novels, this one has an intriguing beginning, and as in those YA novels, the college-age heroine has some of the same swooning experiences with falling in love, smelling tropical flowers in southern California, and eating little except for occasional meals of magical-tasting Asian food. Although I liked some of this in the YA series, it seems much more formulaic in this one, which is about Ariel’s search for her missing best friend, Jeni, during her first two years of college and her mother’s cancer diagnosis and chemotherapy.
Ariel doesn’t fit in with the sorority girls and fraternity boys she meets in Berkeley and circulates at the edge of a stereotypical preppy crowd as a stereotypical turn-of-the-21st-century emo-type, a pale, waifish outsider. Desperate for affection and away from home for the first time, she doesn’t object when some pale, waifish graduate students who also like second-hand clothes (what a coincidence!) give her drugged drinks, dress her in satin gowns, and even trim her long, long hair and rename her (“Sylph,” as if Ariel wasn’t enough of a giveaway in a novel with this title).
Ariel falls in love with one of the graduate students, John Graves, but she has the native wit to stay away from him, in between bouts of 19th-century-style swooning for him. She tells him about her mother’s cancer in a graveyard, where “his eyes glimmered in the sunlight, so deep like water where you can’t find the bottom.”
She makes love with him “and the veils between this world and the others disintegrated in places, like ancient lace, so that I could glimpse through.” They make love again and her climax is like “the portals to the otherworlds were opening.” Finally, John and the grad students tell her why they picked her out from the crowd. (Are you ready for this?)
“We had a baby….She was only here for a moment and then she went away and none of us have been the same….We know about death. We know that souls continue on. But we can’t bring her back. Unless you help us.”
Yes, Ariel is asked to join with them in a necromancy scheme. And then—because as you know, necromancy never pays–it is revealed that their purpose was (gasp!) nefarious all along. In fact it is the grad students who are responsible for Jeni’s disappearance.
Ariel finally works up her courage, in a way that will sound familiar to some readers:
“What had I done, ever, in my life? I had been a daughter, a student, a friend and a lover but I felt I had failed at all of them. I had suffered loss and been afraid. I had loved books and words. If I vanished like Jeni had, what would it really matter? My mom would grieve and my dad, too. John Graves might grieve for at least a little while. But besides a love of words and beauty and a strange tenderness in my heart, what did I really give to the world? I was no heroine and I would never be. No heroine at all. I was what a girl is told to be by most of the world—be passive, be quiet, be slim, don’t draw too much attention to yourself.”
The irony is that by telling herself she is no heroine, she manages to finally act and make something happen. A lot more of that and less of the magical emo stuff would go a long way towards making this a storyline worth pursuing. As it is, a reader can drift through the novel unsurprised and uninvested, like the mostly unheroic heroine.