Monday, September 2, 2013

The Elementals by Francesca Lia Block

Last week I realized that I'd forgotten to put a book review in my blog.  Clearly, all the studying had me feeling burnt out.  So this book review is overdue.  I read the novel and wrote the review last year.  And now, I'm finally remembering to share it in my blog.  

The Elementals by Francesca Lia Block is an adult novel from an author who is most famous for her young adult novels. However, the protagonist, Ariel, is just starting college and the novel reads more a bildungsroman with a young woman coming maturing into adulthood. As one would expect from Block, there is a magical reality layering to her story with symbolic meanings that, for an adult reader, are too obvious, too on-the-nose. Ariel's name is obviously meant to allude to Shakespeare's The Tempest and, should the reader somehow overlook the obvious, Block makes sure that you at least consider the Bard by having Ariel herself put some of the other characters as representative of characters from A Midsummer Night's Dream and even has one of the characters, Jonathan Graves, state outright "Like in The Tempest."

There are other glaring uses of symbolic meaning. One character's name is Coraline Grimm, which is a nod to both Neil Gaiman and, obviously, fairy-tales. Ariel's best-friend, Jennifer's name means "white phantom, which is especially fitting because Jeni, as Ariel calls her, is missing and presumed dead at the novel's beginning, but it can also mean "white fairy." Ariel's last name, Silverman, suggests the silver bough by which people can enter and leave the realm of fairy at will. Block also uses pathetic fallacy a lot in this novel, and the purple prose with which I have come to association her literary style is evident from the very first page. However, I've been reading her novels for nearly twenty years now and I would hope that she could mature somewhat, be more sophisticate and more subtle, especially in a novel written for adults.

And the list of allusions could go on and on. Throughout the novel, Ariel is connected with both her past and the loss of her dear friend and running into her future. As with many of Block's young women characters, Ariel is mostly directionless. Her mission to find Jeni's killer is quickly abandoned as her new friends distract her from her initial intention. But that isn't the only source of distraction because Ariel's mother has breast cancer and this too keeps her from focusing on her studies.

I suppose I was hoping that a novel that begins with a character going to college might result in one of her characters having some personal ambition that would result in self-awareness but Ariel's coming-of-age comes through an older graduate student and also through her mother's illness. I am not giving anything away by pointing out the novel is divided in three years of college (freshman, sophomore, junior) so Ariel doesn't finish her education. And for all the magical realism and evocative, poetic language, the ending is so hastily presented with a resolution that a sophisticated adult reader would anticipate far sooner than even the first "aha" of foreshadowing that comes entire chapters later.

I don't know whether Block does not trust her reader or herself. Her heavy-handed use of allusions--complete with explanations just in case the reader didn't make the connections--is clumsy, at best. In a young adult novel they can be dismissed, although they ought not to be for a young reader will grow up and appreciate discovering a subtle layering of meaning that can only come with age. In a novel for adults, such explanations are an insult and unnecessary. Or perhaps there is something else going on and Block does not trust in her own talent enough to have faith in her readers. If such is the case, I hope she finds an editor who will both celebrate her talent and push Block to grow into it because, after twenty years of writing, it's time to grow up. Or maybe I'm mistaken in my belief that Block has the talent to be writing much better than she has been these past few novels.

And there you go.  I keep thinking I need to stop giving Block just one more chance.  Obviously, I didn't learn my lesson after reading this novel as I just read and reviewed another of her novels. Maybe that one will be the straw that finally breaks me of the habit.

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