Today we bring bring back our feature, “What She Said…” in which we both review books that the other has previously read and reviewed. This feature arose because of a very serious dilemma we faced at Casa de Smugglers: what happens when one of us reads and reviews a book that the other desperately wants to read and review? We can’t really post about the same book AGAIN, right? WRONG! Thus, “What She Said…” was born.
Thea read The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein last year and has been talking it up ever since – she even included it as one of her top 10 reads of 2018. When the time came for us to resurrect (pun intended) our long-lost What She Said feature, this was the first book that came to mind.
The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White
September 25th 2018, Delacorte Press, 304 pages
Elizabeth Lavenza hasn’t had a proper meal in weeks. Her thin arms are covered with bruises from her “caregiver,” and she is on the verge of being thrown into the streets . . . until she is brought to the home of Victor Frankenstein, an unsmiling, solitary boy who has everything–except a friend.
Victor is her escape from misery. Elizabeth does everything she can to make herself indispensable–and it works. She is taken in by the Frankenstein family and rewarded with a warm bed, delicious food, and dresses of the finest silk. Soon she and Victor are inseparable.
But her new life comes at a price. As the years pass, Elizabeth’s survival depends on managing Victor’s dangerous temper and entertaining his every whim, no matter how depraved. Behind her blue eyes and sweet smile lies the calculating heart of a girl determined to stay alive no matter the cost . . . as the world she knows is consumed by darkness.
What Thea Said:
This standalone novel is a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but from the perspective of Elizabeth (remember, the virginal, angelic ward of the Frankenstein family who Victor idealizes, marries, and then who is killed by the Monster on their wedding night). This Elizabeth is no angel–she’s a fighter and a survivor, and this particular retelling paints the entire Frankenstein mythos in a new light. Trust me: read it.
What Ana Says:
You know the story of Frankenstein. I know the story of Frankenstein.
But here is Kiersten White reimagining the story of Frankenstein the way I never knew I wanted: from Elizabeth Frankenstein’s perspective.
This is not the Frankenstein we think we know.
As you may recall, Elizabeth is the ward of the Frankenstein family, the promised bride of Victor Frankenstein, and an example of a perfect woman: beautiful and dedicated to him and his family. In the original novel, Elizabeth is killed by Frankenstein’s Monster on their wedding night. Her death, an early example of fridging ( a woman in the refrigerator) only serves to motivate Victor in his revenge.
But Kiersten White asks: what if Elizabeth was the main character of her own story, what tale would she tell?
For starters, one that interrogates her own identity as a ward of the Frankenstein family, her role in it and the very the nature of her relationship with Victor.
When she was five years old, an orphaned Elizabeth was taken from an abusive carer and given to Victor Frankenstein as a child companion. As a child, Victor not only already showed signs of his genius, but also signs of a difficult temper and a strange disposition toward other people. When Elizabeth, cunning, smart and observant Elizabeth, showed an easiness in dealing with Victor – and calming him down – the Frankenstein family was more than happy to take her in. All her life since then, Elizabeth has been close to Victor and they are expected to marry. She also knows that, as a penniless girl, her entire livelihood and survival depends utterly on Victor.
So when Victor goes away to College and disappears without a trace, she starts to despair that her life will soon be ruined. She enlists the help of her best friend – and the family governess – Justine and goes after Victor. In many ways, this is the beginning of the end for Elizabeth. Her dark descent started the moment she vet Victor and she understood he was her way out of a lifetime of abuse and poverty. But she never expected there was to be an actual monster to contend with (and you can read this sentence in two different ways).
In this story and this narrative, Elizabeth is a bold, self-aware girl willing to do anything to survive. She knows how precarious her life is, how less privileged she is when it comes to options and choices. Her main concern regards her usefulness: what other use could she have to the family if Victor doesn’t marry her, or doesn’t at least need her to calm him down? Oh, but the answer to this one question is made plainer toward the end of the novel in a moment that took a specific storyline from the original and turned it on its own head.
“Doing anything to survive” includes covering up for Victor and his less palatable pursuits. There are moments in this novel, where small truths regarding Victor’s behaviour and choices are revealed that literally made me gasp. And here is perhaps, the greatest trick behind The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein: instead of presenting Victor as a brooding, misguided genius, his actions are taken at face value, and when examined under this light, Victor can only be seen as a psychopath. Elizabeth’s actions in covering up for him take an even darker turn when that becomes clearer to her. Is Elizabeth then a full accomplice with her enabling and what does that mean for her when all of her beloved friends start dying one by one?
But Ana, how did the author solve the problem of this Elizabeth and this Victor when put together with the original narrative? Brilliantly, I think: the original novel is after all, an epistolary narrative and Victor’s journals are nothing if the unreliable narrative of a person covering his tracks. I loved this novel for this.
Just as I loved the care and the appreciation for Elizabeth’s relationship with Justine as well as Mary, a bookseller who knows Victor in passing and who ends up being part of Elizabeth’s found family (the third person of this family is an unexpected and beautiful surprise).
In sum, I dearly loved this novel and am grateful that Thea pushed me to read it. Can I do the same for you?
Rating: 8 – Excellent