Happy Frankenstein Friday! Maybe this is a sign that I need to stop reading YA retellings of classic novels, but I read The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White and felt there was more to be desired.
At a young age, Elizabeth Lavenza is rescued by the Frankensteins and whisked off to a fancy estate with plenty of food and a boy named Victor. It’s Elizabeth’s duty to befriend Victor and keep him company. Believing she is dispensable, she does whatever it takes to soothe Victor’s temper and indulge his every whim—no matter how twisted. She even goes to great lengths to find him when he doesn’t return her letters after two years of being away at school. But when she does find him, she realizes how far Victor has gone and what she must do to clean up his mess.
Now, I’m all for retellings that give the female characters a little more agency than in the original novel. And that is exactly what The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein does. It gives Elizabeth Lavenza’s character something more than just being a damsel in distress who dies. Instead, this Elizabeth is a calculating, sneaky, and heartless (and annoying), girl trying to come out on top—or at least survive the existence she’s been given. The aspect of this book I do like was the idea that Elizabeth is present for many of the major events of Frankenstein, even if Victor didn’t realize it: discovering his laboratory and rescuing him from the fever that addles his body; huddling behind a rock on the mountain, straining to listen to Victor’s conversation with the Creature; venturing to the isolate island Victor uses to continue his experiments. These scenes, lifted straight from the original story, make this book interesting.
Then, the story shifts. Following Victor and Elizabeth’s marriage, the book no longer follows the original story but decides to go on its own path. I know that many retellings do this. At this point, it’s almost expected for a retelling to bring something new to the original story. But the second half of this book is so different than the first half, it comes across awkward. It’s like trying to mesh two ideas together, and the result is no better than Victor’s misshapen, horrifying Creature.
Instead of a being merely a misguided man, Victor is an insane mass murderer and has been contemplating such thoughts since childhood. Not only is this morbid, but it bypasses the intent of the original novel and throws away Victor’s remorse. Yeah, in the original novel Victor makes a lot of stupid decisions and doesn’t own up to his mistakes at first. But over the course of the story, we see something in Victor change. It’s that something that propels him to finally hunt down the Creature, even if it kills him. And even when he does, he still cannot bring himself to kill the Creature. So in what freaking world is Victor a mass murderer, who kills his own family members?
(Honestly, I never thought I’d see myself defending Victor Frankenstein’s character arc, yet here we are.)
But perhaps, I’m giving YA retellings too much credit. Instead, I should be grateful that such a retelling gives power to Elizabeth and the other female characters in the story, whether original characters or new characters. That these characters are able to defy society and rage and burn against the people who have imprisoned them. Maybe.
As I said, I like that this story gave Elizabeth’s character something more, I just felt that other aspects were a letdown and could have been more complex to match the original novel. The title doesn’t encompass Elizabeth’s character arc, as she never truly has a “dark descent.” And the epilogue, while clever, didn’t work for me. Also, (highlight for spoiler): I am so disappointed that the blank black page and the lightning bolt page had absolutely no significance to the story. I really wanted Elizabeth to die and be reanimated by Victor, even though that isn’t accurate to the original novel, and I had such high hopes that event would take place within those pages. Alas.
Based on numerous Goodreads reviews, many people liked this book. I, however, was not one of them. If you like classic retellings that give female side characters more power, you might like this one. But for me, I have to stick to the original novel and pretend this one doesn’t exist.
(Except for the cover. That cover is perfect.)