Billed as an “adult novel,” The Elementals, by Francesca Lia Block (The Weetzie Bat books, Guarding the Moon) catapults us into the world of Ariel, a girl on the cusp of womanhood, struggling to make sense of her first year of college, her mother’s bout with cancer, and the disappearance of a friend. She’s bullied, loses herself in the lyrics of Tori Amos, and begins a mental and emotional dalliance with a trio of louder-than-bombs types that becomes, with one man, a physical love affair.
Of course Ariel is alienated from her family. And of course she befriends a kind-of-out-there teacher. And of course her friends know more about the disappearance of Ariel’s friend than Ariel does. All of these of courses, what you’d expect from Block—magic and slippery sex and a potent mix of love and drugs, where you don’t know where you begin and your lover ends, when you don’t want to know where you begin and your lover ends. Young adulthood the way a grown-up, decades separated from his or her own young adulthood, might imagine young adulthood today to be.
Confession: Despite my 15-year love affair with Block’s novels, I didn’t like The Elementals at first. I thought it derivative and too neat. Everything falls into the place the way you’d expect things to fall into place. The mystery I expected never materialized. Too much coincidence, not enough surprise. And I wrestled with how to write about this novel. And the more I wrestled with the review, the more I thought about the novel, and the more I thought about the novel, the more I saw it as a modern day myth.
Our heroine tasked with a series of Herculean tasks. A prophetic homeless man. A trio of seductive fates. Photographs that develop as blank canvases. Wild gardens and midnight beasts, haunting melodies and afternoon feasts. Here, in this world, your expectations must be met, because these stories Block tells have happened are happening will happen.
Even our heroine’s name, Ariel, The Little Mermaid, who gives up her voice for a chance to walk on land. Our Ariel, or, rather, Block’s Ariel, has to find her voice, lost in a cacophony of opinions and decisions and out-of-control moments where she has to hold onto nothing as fast as she can. Already on land, Ariel must learn to swim. Which she does. A mermaid with the soul of a siren and a warrior’s heart.
Wielded expertly, after consideration, Block’s The Elementals will lead you places you’ve probably already been, or, if not, places where you’d go if given the chance. Trust Block; she’s woven within the text a slender chain of a thread that, if you hold on, will lead you out.
The Elementals, by Francesca Lia Block. New York, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012. 272 pages. $24.99, hardcover.
William Henderson is never far from his phone, where he is often tweeting (@Avesdad) or blogging (hendersonhouseofcards.com). He is a frequent contributor to Thought Catalog, and has been published in The Rumpus, Mental Shoes, Revolution House, Specter, and Used Furniture Review, among others. He writes a bimonthly column for Hippocampus Magazine, is a regular contributor to Peripheral Surveys, and published his first chapbook, Edgeways, through NAP, in 2011.