The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by: Kiersten White
Released: September 25 2018
Rating: * * * *
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.
As an English major, I’ve encountered the story of Frankenstein, and it’s many variations, more times than I can count. And in most of these variations, spin-offs, retellings, etc., two things tend to pop up: Victor Frankenstein is a dark, broody, dream-boat that we’re supposed to swoon over and root for, and the age-old question “who really is the monster here?” It’s been done ad nauseam at this point, and I figured that this novel would be just another to add to the list.
I was wrong.
This is, in all actuality, Elizabeth’s story, which is the best. In the original, she is Victor’s cousin and future wife, and plays a very small role, which I was always bitter about. I always wanted to get more insight into the major players in Victor’s life, and how they interacted with him, and how they humanized him, and whatnot. So, it was a joy that this book is so very much about Elizabeth, and her journey. And what a brilliant character she is. She’s so far from the typical love interests that we see in these different takes on Victor Frankenstein. She’s not a damsel. She’s not an angel. She’s not a sweet darling. She’s a beautifully complex, and grey, character. Sure, she has a good side, we all do. She’s a fiercely loyal friend, she fights for the underdog, and she can be very loving. But this is a girl who knows what it means to struggle. She understands that, basically, her entire life hinges on making people like her, and take care of her, and she has no problem keeping that at the full-front of her mind. She has no problem laying on the charm to keep her options open. Her survival depends on it. So even when we see her make some maybe-not-so-sweet decisions, we find it hard to fault her for it. She’s just a girl trying to escape a life of poverty, abuse, and misery. How can you blame her for that?
The portrayal of Victor Frankenstein in this version is everything I’ve ever wanted. From the get go, we understand that Victor is not right. The way he behaves is not okay. He’s not tall, dark, and brooding. He’s wrong. Just, naturally, fundamentally, and intrinsically wrong. We’re not supposed to see him as this romantic, misunderstood boy, even if that’s how Elizabeth sees him. We’re supposed to believe that this is unhealthy, and it’s set up that way immediately, which I appreciate so much. It makes both of them, Victor and Elizabeth, far more interesting characters, and it makes reading the novel that much more intriguing, and thought provoking. It keeps the reader on the edge of their seat, not in an action-y way, but in an emotional way. There are moments where we see Elizabeth’s humanizing affects on Victor, and we might find ourselves slipping, and rooting for this relationship to work, but then Victor will do or say something, and it’ll knock us right back into “this boy is not right.”
Where my feelings on this novel get a little confusing is here: this novel is very much about an emotionally abusive and manipulative relationship. And while I love that about the novel, because it makes the story so complex, and it’s such an important topic to talk about, especially in teen fiction, I also find it so hard to read. Because I was in a emotionally abusive and manipulative relationship. So, often times while reading this, probably more than most other people will, I found myself siding with Victor, or with Elizabeth when she’s making unhealthy decisions, just for Victor’s benefit. Then I’d have to stop myself and say, “No, this is unhealthy. I’m not supposed to be supporting this.” And that was hard for me sometimes. But, in saying that, I can admit that this was a very real, and accurate depiction of what being in a relationship like this is like. Yes, part of why Elizabeth makes some of these choices lies in her desire to stay off the streets, but it’s also equally just about Victor, and wanting to keep him happy, and make him love her. And that’s so toxic, and damaging. But it’s real, and it’s important to talk about, and I’m so glad that Kiersten covered it here, and that she did it so well.
This book, while hard for me to get through here and there, was so beautifully done. You can tell that it was painstakingly researched, and that Kiersten has a deep love for the story. The writing was lush, and poetic, but also brutal, and harsh. She did a fantastic job of marrying so many different moving parts: Elizabeth’s journey to self-reliance, Victor’s horror story, the mystery, the happy moments, the gruesome moments. All of it. Also, the friendships in this novel were outstanding. The girl love was so sweet, and genuine, I found myself smiling so wide whenever Elizabeth and Justine, or Elizabeth and Mary, were on the page together. Elizabeth and Henry’s relationship was also wonderful. It very easily could’ve devolved into the tropey love-triangle we’re all sick-to-death of, but it didn’t. It was handled just right, and I loved it.
This is, by far, the best re-telling of this story that I’ve ever read. Except for my own personal issues about the topic, which is of no-fault of Kiersten’s, this book was perfection, and I will absolutely be recommending it to anyone looking for more Frankenstein stories.