Review: The Elementals, Francesca Lia Block

I’ve never read anything by Francesca Lia Block but I’ve always thought of her as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of authors. This is probably quite unfair, and I liked The Elementals pretty well. If anyone has recommendations of further Francesca Lia Block books I should read, please take to the comments and let me know. My libraries have a number of Francesca Lia Block books for me to read on my Nook, and I have jury duty later this month so I will need plenty of reading material.

Ariel Silverman’s best friend Jeni (awesome name, absurd spelling) vanished, and was presumed killed, on a college trip to Berkeley. Now Ariel has come to Berkeley for college, and she is sure somehow that Jeni is still alive, and that she can find her if she tries. Once at college, Ariel struggles to fit in, and she can hardly talk to her parents about how she feels because her mother is fighting cancer. After some time, she meets a trio of mysterious people — Tania, John Graves, and Perry — whose otherworldly airs and parties intrigue Ariel.

I loved the way Francesca Lia Block wove unrealities into the fabric of her book. Ariel gradually becomes aware that something strange is happening with John, Tania, and Perry, and she recognizes that she’s living something like a fairy tale. This is lovely and evocative and exactly the right amount of creepy:

The girl lay asleep in a nest of straw and feathers under a blanket of green foliage. Her hair was wild, a tangle of leaves, twigs and flowers. She was sleeping peacefully but around her neck was tied a rope.

I thought it was the perfect way to maintain the mood of the book. At the same time, the book had elements that were starkly real — Ariel sees her mother struggling with cancer in the hospital, and she becomes semi-convinced that one of their creepy teachers was involved in Jeni’s disappearance. The balance between the fairy tale elements and the first year of college elements was very good.

You will accuse me of being unsatisfiable, but I’d have loved for Block to maintain plausible deniability of the magic stuff all the way to the end. We find out exactly, exactly what happened to Jeni and how it relates to the other events of the book. And just, it would have been great if (SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS) the book had let us wonder whether it was Tania who killed her, or the creepy teacher, or some third party. Or even let Ariel wonder a little bit at the end. Y’ALL I KNOW. I cannot be satisfied. The only book that ever maintained complete plausible deniability about its magical elements was Illyria, and I griped all about Illyria. Because I am hateful and nothing can ever satisfy me. I recognize that that’s true about me.

It would also have been great to give John Graves a little more interiority (and hey, maybe a name that’s a little less on the nose?). I liked the arc of his story in general — about which more later — but I didn’t really know what the character was apart from his past tragedy and his relationship with Ariel. There was more to him than just good sex, presumably?

Actually, in general the characters were a teeny bit one-note. It would have done wonders for my enjoyment of Tania as a character if some semi-normal character had said something like “She puts on this occult act, but she can be really [adjective], like the time she [some past action you wouldn't expect].” Just to add another dimension to her apart from the getting people naked and waving veils about, or whatever it is she does all through the book. And maybe some biting memories of Jeni doing non-saintly-dead-girl things, so we’d have a sense of who the person was that Ariel was missing.

And now for a rousing piece of praise: The Elementals contains the best description of a protagonist’s first sexual experiences of any book I have ever read. EVER. The sex scenes were really good, and I don’t often say that about sex scenes. In fact almost never. Block didn’t chicken out and get cutesy at the last minute, and she didn’t have everything perfectly choreographed every moment, and she didn’t resort to swoopy soapy language to describe what was going on. It was quite impressive. There was one case in which Block used his sex as a euphemism, and that is still by far the grossest euphemism ever, but it only happened once.

(But ew though. That’s still really gross.)

Take to the comments and recommend me some more Francesca Lia Block books! Or tell me why The Elementals is her peak performance and I shouldn’t bother with anything else because I’ll only be disappointed. Or whatever. I just like to hear from you.

21 thoughts on “Review: The Elementals, Francesca Lia Block

  1. Perhaps your jury duty stint will turn out like mine. I was supposed to call in every afternoon to see whether to report the next day. The first two days, they said not to come, and on the third day when I called, they said there were no trials for the rest of the week, so I was done. Easiest jury duty ever. But I was hoping for some extra reading time and was disappointed not to get it.

    • Yep, that’s what happened at my last one. However, several people have told me that they are crazy desperate for jurors in New York, and the sort of thing you describe is much less likely here. That’s what people have said. So who knows.

  2. I really like the sound of this, and now I’m super curious about that sex scene. And read the Weetzie Bat books! I can see why they would sound sort of manic pixie dream girl-y at first glance, but when you read them they’re actually thoughtful and sweet and really moving in a way that catches you by surprise.

    • I hope when you read this you don’t go “Ew, this sex scene is terrible.” I’d be embarrassed then! But I think you will like it — it’s a sex scene where the guy is more experienced than the girl but the girl doesn’t lack agency. Which, yay.

  3. I haven’t read any FLB (if you’ll allow me to acronymize her name?) so I can’t recommend. But I am going to tbr this because you have me intrigued. Thank you.

  4. I loved the Weezie Bat books, and I don’t usually like fairy tale, alternate reality books, but she really made it work for me as a modern day fairy tale. Quite delightful.

    • I think I didn’t realize they were fairy taley, those books, and I didn’t totally know there were more than one of them. Both of these pieces of information make me feel more interested in trying them out. (Also the strong support for them that is emerging in this comment thread.)

  5. Grossest euphemism ever? Reeeely?

    I am on a Trollope kick, and just finished the Oxford edition with the whole title proclaimed on the cover: of Phineas Finn: The Irish Member.

    Absurdly I felt a little flash of indignation for the Irish every time I saw it. Those Oxfordians, I thought. How English they are.

    I shared your initial impression of Francisca Lea Block, it did not change when I read one of her books. I can’t remember which one now. Maybe I was the wrong age.

    • Was that the full title? I read the Palliser saga (or a portion of it) sitting in a gallery a couple of decades ago. I read the first ‘can you forgive her?’ (of which Henry James apparently said – ‘we certainly can – and just as easily forget her’) ‘Phineas Finn’ & ‘Phineas Redux’. I thought at the time Phineas was based on Charles Parnell, but apparently not. They were all pretty good. I skipped ‘The Eustace Diamonds’ although that’s supposed to be one of the best.

  6. I read a book by her and disliked it so much, I just can’t bring myself to try another. I’m glad that you liked this well enough, though!

      • It was The Frenzy which was a werewolf book. Let’s see the writing (felt very basic), and I felt like it was just a telling of events without ever showing or inviting me in to feel what the characters felt. One dimensional characters. Lol I’m looking at my review right now to remember!

  7. This fairytale mixed with college thing makes me think of Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin – is this book similar at all? Your review has made me curious though also afraid (I am bad with creepy things).

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