Review: “The Elementals” by Francesca Lia Block


Title: “The Elementals”

Author: Francesca Lia Block

Genre: Adult, magical realism, mystery, crime

Publication Date: October 16, 2012 (expected)

Summary: 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.

☆: 5/5 stars – not the feel good book of the year, but definitely one of the more important ones.

Review: My thanks to the author for lending me her copy to review. This is a very hard review to do unbiased, as Block is my mentor, but I will try nonetheless.

This is also generally a pretty difficult review to write, mostly because of how much the book moved me. I don’t say that often in my reviews, but I had to pause more than once when reading this because my eyes just kept filling up. While Ariel gets a happily ever after in this book and (presumably, since it’s not concretely sketched out for us at the end of the book) her cancer-stricken mother does too, unfortunately, Block’s mother did not. Gilda Block died almost two years ago, and this book is dedicated to her — and I think Gilda would be very, very proud of this book. Block wrote this from a place of grief, but all the same, that same grief moved her to a place that’s above some of her most wonderful works to date. “The Elementals” is definitely one of her most mature and tender books to date. It’s not a happy book, but is one that will ultimately make you grow and give you hope.

My best friend died at age 12 – three months away from her 13th birthday. Block, through Ariel and her search for her BFF Jeni, talks about how the vanishing or murder of someone so young stays with you. And it does. Never knowing what could have been stays with you, and while Ariel and Jeni are older than my friend who died (also from cancer) so young, the idea of youth vanishing at such an innocent age is a haunting one – I know it definitely haunted me because I identified with Ariel so strongly in that department. This book is structured as a murder mystery, but Block does it through her traditional style of magical realism. Are the new friends Ariel finds really magical? Or is she really losing her mind from the grief of losing her best friend and trying to battle it out along side her sick mother? It’s a question that gets asked repeatedly, reminding the reader that Ariel may or may not be a reliable narrator (spoiler alert: the question is never firmly answered, but it is implied that she is a reliable narrator in the end), and that reality is all about perception. Because Ariel is perceiving things in a magical way, they are magical when happening to her.

Ariel is one of the most sympathetic main characters, either in adult or in YA (and this is a book for adults), that I’ve ever ‘met’ (as much as a reader can meet a main character). She gets kicked around by life pretty hard her first year at Berkeley, and she’s trying so hard to keep functioning each day without losing her mind or her heart, or both. As I know how that feels on the grief end of losing someone so close to you, it pulled at a few very old triggers in me, so I did have to take breaks when reading it. Ariel does not hold back from the reader as she narrates us in her journey through her mother’s illness and her quest to find her best friend/who took her best friend. But Block once again manages to go through the “tough stuff” genre elegantly, knowing how to phrase things, and how to start knitting together a tale you can’t put down, even if it makes you feel things that you can’t quite immediately comprehend.

The plot is easy to follow, even with the question of magical reality versus insanity planted firmly within the audience’s mind. Block hasn’t written this murder-mystery plot before, but I couldn’t really find a place where she once stumbled or made me question the believability (even in the most fantastic parts of the book) of Ariel Silverman’s tale. Every character was filled out wonderfully, every arc and sub-arc executed with skill and grace. Her sensory language in this particular book is some of the most powerful I’ve read from her yet. I’ve never been to Berkeley or San Francisco (though I do know LA very well), and she yet made me experience both of those places through words. This is so very hard to do, and not everyone can excel in it, but I think that writing from this place of grief really ultimately helped enhance Block’s skills everywhere, and especially in the sensory language and imagery department.

Final verdict? A must-read, especially if you’ve read Block’s YA works – you’ll see how much she’s grown here. And if you haven’t, what better way to introduce yourself to her style than through this book? Either way, this is a mainstream adult debut you really can’t miss this year. “The Elementals” is out through St. Martin’s Press/Macmillan October 16th, 2012 in North America – other places, please consult your local bookseller. Seriously, guys. Not for the faint of heart, but the payoff is huge in the end. This one makes my best of 2o12 list so check it out when it gets published in October!

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4 thoughts on “Review: “The Elementals” by Francesca Lia Block

  1. Pingback: usagi’s challenges for 2012! « birth of a new witch.

  2. Interesting. I keep seing that title appearing in other people’s blogs as being on their wish list, so I was happy to get here a bit more sense of what it’s about. I like magical realism a lot, so I’ll probably check this when it gets published. Thanks.

  3. I don’t know what to say. Is this true, that Gilda passed away…almost 2 years ago?! I can’t believe it. So sorry to hear. We spoke at least once a year. Often spoke about Irving, but many many other things as well. I swear I got a call from her within this year, but…it just doesn’t seem possible. I’d been trying to find her new number after she returned from Ojai. (I’ll certainly want to get and read this book.)

    • It’s true, I’m afraid. She died in late 2010. You should definitely read this book, as I think Gilda would be the most proud of this book out of everything of Francesca’s.

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