The Selective Collective: The Elementals

Welcome to our first edition of The Selective Collective. Together with our friends at The Book Addict’s Guide, Gone Pecan, The Grown Up YA and Teen Lit Rocks, we’ll be exploring a new release in its entirety, from review to author spotlight, to a roundtable chat, among other fun things.

This week, we’re discussing The Elementals by Francesca Lia Block:

Ariel Silverman is a normal girl, making plans for college, when her mother reveals she has breast cancer. On top of this, Ariel is still recovering from the loss of her best friend, Jeni, who vanished without a trace on a school trip to Berkeley. This event has closed Ariel’s heart and changed her forever.

As she tries to adjust to college life in a new city, Ariel cannot let the mystery of Jeni’s disappearance rest and finally takes the now-dormant investigation upon herself.

Ariel’s journey will take her into a world of astonishing beauty, sexual discovery, and danger. In an old house in the Berkeley hills she will meet three enigmatic strangers who make her feel fully alive for the first time since she lost Jeni.

But there is more to these three than meets the eye, and through them Ariel will face a chilling choice and unravel just what happened to her missing friend. (inside cover)

The Story:

Since the disappearance of her best friend Jeni one year ago, Ariel has been sleepwalking through life.  The pain she feels over this traumatic loss is compounded when she learns upon leaving for college that her mom has breast cancer.  Faced with being separated from her family through this devastating battle and beginning a new life at Berkeley–the school Ariel and Jeni planned to attend together and the last place Jeni was ever seen–Ariel slips into a lonely, convoluted depression. She’s detached from her parents, who desire to protect her from the truth about her mother’s difficulties, and she leads an anti-social sort of existence, her main concern being investigating Jeni’s whereabouts. This need consumes her and leads her to places she shouldn’t explore, but it’s almost as if this search is the only thing keeping her afloat.

Deeply mired in loneliness, Ariel stumbles upon three enticing strangers in a wonderful old home in the hills.  They have this incredible magnetism, drawing her in, making her feel welcomed and desired. She’s entranced by Tania, the woman of the house. She, her lover, Perry and their friend John begin to open Ariel’s  eyes to a completely different world.  They’re intoxicating and strange and there are times when Ariel’s with them that she almost forgets about that dull ache she usually lives with. She’s captivated by all of them, but she’s especially drawn to John, the handsome, quiet one who seems equally pulled to her.  The three take Ariel on quite an emotional journey, but in the end, she can’t escape Jeni and her deep need to know what happened; she can’t hide from her mother’s cancer forever.  And though Tania, Perry and John are seductive, what they ask in return for their love is sometimes too much.

My Take:

This type of book was a huge departure for me, but really liked it. The story was sad, but there was this underlying sense of mystery and magic in the life Ariel found with Tania, Perry and John.  Before meeting them, her pain was so vivid as she struggled with a sense of guilt because she was  living the life she and Jeni had once mapped out together.  That guilt overflowed into everything, affecting the way she did everything and ultimately leading her in a desperate search for her missing friend. And when she meets these three strangers, the pain and the guilt are still there, but it’s as if Ariel is suddenly lit up inside.  She still longs for Jeni, she still feels fear and pain over her mother’s illness, but she’s also consumed by this new love with John and her infatuation with the threesome.

The relationship she has with the group is strange, to say the least. There seems to be no clear boundaries in the household and, while both Tania and Perry want to envelop her into the fold, there are many questions about exactly where John fits into the situation. There’s clearly a sordid past there, complete with sex, and love and tragedy, but Ariel never quite manages to ask the right questions at the right times. Instead, she dives in head first to an intense, passionate romance with John.  He clearly cares for her and as they begin to explore both an emotional and physical relationship, they border on being somewhat obsessive. It’s hard to describe actually. There are good things there, but there are also red flags that just scream “unhealthy.”

I think Ariel is beautiful in her honest vulnerability. She’s practically on the verge of losing it when the story begins, and it takes her a great deal of exploration to truly find herself and her place both in a life without Jeni, and in a world with a seriously ill mom. I understood the draw of Tania, Perry and John because they appeared when she was so desperately lost, but I was never completely sold on the friendship or the love story.  Still, I liked this story and I couldn’t put it down.

Memorable Quotes

Ariel’s thoughts on her mom:

…I thought of how, when I was a little, sleepless girl, my mom would come in my bed with me and curl up at the bottom.

“I love you,” I’d say. “You’re the best mommy in the world.” And she’d say, “I love you more.” We went on like that back and forth. One night she added, “Someday I hope you meet a man who loves you as much as I do. Because every girl deserves that much love.” I reached out and took her hand and that was how I had been able to sleep.

There were no nightmares then, not real ones, no malignancies, no missing girls.

Ariel on life without Jeni:

Everywhere I went I imagined she was walking with me. I tried to see things through her eyes; it wasn’t hard. I knew how she thought. The faces she would find beautiful or interesting, the scruffy and disabled dogs she would stop to pet, the jewelry she would lift from the black velvet on the street vendor’s table, examining to see how it was made, the buildings she would want to live in. I recorded anything that seemed important in the notebook I always carried. Sometimes I wrote stories trying to understand more about a wild world that made no sense to me…

Sometimes when I saw the campus police or passed the station I wondered to myself what I would say to them.

“I want her back,” I would say. “Can you help me find her?”

Ariel on spying on the threesome:

They looked like the perfect friends I dreamed of having, I had dreamed of having since I lost the only real friend I had ever had. But I was not part of this world, I told myself. Why even try? John held the blonde as if she were his lover. They had no need for me. It was worse that the world of the dorms. At least I didn’t care if I was rejected there. So I turned away from the house where part of me still remained.

Be sure to visit by bogging partners in The Selective Collective:

The Book Addict’s Guide- What is New Adult?

Gone Pecan- Roundtable Q & A

The Grown Up YA- Author Spotlight

Teen Lit Rocks- Casting Call

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for sending us all copies of The Elementals!