Thursday, November 1, 2012

Reader Review of the Elementals Thank You Justina Jess Nemoy

Review: The Elementals by Francesca Lia Block

Justina Nemoy

There are those who make magic and those who are magical. Francesca Lia Block is both. A weaver of words, her shimmering prose wraps the reader in an enchanted cloak, embroidered with dreams. Through her eyes, cities offer a fleeting glimpse of the magic secretly pulsing through their veins beneath the skin of mini malls and suburban mazes. Block’s books are sensual delights. Reading them, I smell the tang of salt water, savor the delicious heat of Mexican food, feel the papery blossoms of Bougainvillea between fingertips, visually caress dusty cactus-lined canyons, and sense Otherworldly creatures flitting on the periphery. She returns me to the Los Angeles of my youth. As in any timeless tale, Block anchors fantasy elements with life’s darker truths. Her characters face eating disorders, addiction, sexual identity, or depression. They struggle with loss and recovery. Loneliness and self-doubt eat away at them. They ache to find love and acceptance. Her protagonists are strikingly real in their challenges, even more believable in the gradual revelation of their inner strength. I have loved Block’s work since I discovered a signed copy of Dangerous Angels, the collected Weetzie Bat novellas, at my local bookstore. Each of her books I read in a trance, devouring yet fearing its end, until I emerge from its spell, inspired and redeemed.

The Elementals, Block’s newest novel does not disappoint. Although known for her Young Adult books, this work is bolder in its undercurrent of sexuality and more graphic in its descriptions of sex. Thus, it is marketed as a novel for adults. However the narrator, Ariel’s, coming of age story will appeal to adults and older teen readers alike.

The story opens with the disappearance of Ariel’s best friend, Jeni, while on a college trip to UC Berkeley. This mystery weaves its dark thread throughout. A traditional college experience is turned on its head as Ariel searches for clues. Her mother is also fighting breast cancer. Instead of drawing closer, they push each other away. Lonely Ariel is pulled into the enchanted world of three enigmatic strangers- John, Tania, and Perry- living in their enticing home on the hill. As she becomes increasingly entangled in the fairy tale existence of her new friends, she grows detached from the more painful realities in her life. Block’s protagonist is alternately driven to find answers or to seek the various forms of oblivion offered her. A steamy romance with the intriguing and handsome John becomes addictive.

The narrative references the legend of Tam Lin and Fair Janet without becoming derivative. Will Ariel chose to remain in Fairyland? Is John the enchanted knight held captive? Is it Ariel? Or perhaps, it is them both. The Elementals successfully utilizes the mythos of shape-changing lover and human-stealing fairies in new ways. Block’s skillful writing transforms them into metaphors which satisfy and propel the story forward to its compelling conclusion.

I return to Block’s novels because, despite the magical elements, she does not sugar-coat. Her portrait of a woman battling breast cancer is heart wrenchingly real. Many times, my face was wet with tears. Not only was I caught up in Ariel’s mother’s experience, I relived the pain of watching my father battle cancer. Yet, there is true catharsis in this part of the story. At its end, I found that my grief had subtly changed. I felt stronger and the ache, while still there, hurt less. A good book opens worlds. An excellent one opens a reader. The Elementals is as much about transformation as it is transformative.

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