“While I saw the destruction of the tree as nature’s beauty, Victor saw power—power to light up the night and banish darkness, power to end a centuries-old life in a single strike—that he cannot control or access. And nothing bothers Victor more than something he cannot control.”The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein
I know 2020 just began but I think I’ve already found my favourite book of the year. Okay, maybe that’s a little bit too dramatic but seriously, I think I enjoyed this book more than I really should have. This book is a retelling of Frankenstein (the original by Mary Shelley) but from the perspective of the most underrated and overlooked characters from the original: Elizabeth Lavenza (later Elizabeth Frankenstein).
Now, in relation to the original Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, I personally didn’t like it very much (I gave it two stars on Goodreads). The deeper meaning of the story and the questions Shelley asked in the novel about humanity, what it means to be human, life and death, how far can we get away with tampering with nature etc. were the only things that actually kept me interested in the book but really, I just didn’t like Shelley’s writing style. That’s it. I didn’t like her writing style, and thus, unfortunately, Frankenstein became one of those books where I kept counting down the pages until I finished. In fact, for a lot of classics (e.g Wuthering Heights! It took me almost three years to finish this book because. I. Just. Couldn’t. Focus.) I really just disliked the writing style. Other aspects of classic literature such as plot, themes etc. I do find interesting and enjoyable.
(In fact, I think the only classic novels I actually truly enjoyed was Little Women, The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Great Gatsby).
But this retelling of Frankenstein is seriously making me want to reread Mary Shelley’s original.
In summary, as I said, this novel is retelling Shelley’s story but with Elizabeth as our main character rather than Victor Frankenstein. We’re first introduced to Elizabeth as a child who is essentially being abused by her caregiver, she was about to be kicked out and thrown into the streets to fend for herself at the age of 5, until her saving grace, the Frankensteins bought her (that’s right, bought not brought) and took her to their estate for the sole purpose to ‘fix’ their eldest son, Victor.
It’s clear from the beginning that Victor is not a ‘normal’ child. Prone to anger tantrums which only got worse as he got older, he had absolutely no friends until Elizabeth came into his life and manages to calm his temper. However, Elizabeth is very aware that her only purpose with the Frankenstein’s is to be a friend to Victor, and if she loses Victor’s favour, she will be thrown out of the house and left to suffer as a woman alone in the 18th century.
So, Elizabeth does everything necessary to make sure she and Victor are inseparable – that means managing his terrible temper and supporting his every decision. That also means destroying the monster he created. And all the evidence of its existence.
Elizabeth is a very calculating and cold character who’s main motivation is to just not be hungry and homeless. We’re supposed to dislike her but I honestly can’t help but feel bad for her. She’s willing to play the part of the ‘traditional 18th-century woman’ who’s sweet, pleasant, and completely innocent and ignorant of the cruel world (she wears white clothing almost throughout the whole novel because Victor prefers her wearing white). As a woman in this time period, she has absolutely nothing, and so he puts all her hopes of a safe life in Victor’s hands. So, when she fears for his safety, she will do anything to make sure he’s safe. At the beginning of the novel, we learn that Victor has left for University and hasn’t been writing back to Elizabeth, so, we have her travel to Victor’s university where she discovers his experiments. After managing to convince him to come home, the infamous monster starts causing trouble. Her obsession with loving Victor (because she has no choice but to love him) is truly both her downfall and her awakening. Elizabeth burns down a building, ‘betrays’ her best friends and lets Victor get away with stabbing his younger brother all because she loves Victor. But even her love for him, she found, had limits.
Now, the scary thing about Victor is that for literally 3/4 of the novel, us, as readers, actually like him. Because of Elizabeth’s unhealthy love for Victor, as readers, we actually start to believe that he loves her too. Now let me make this clear, Elizabeth’s only fatal flaw is that she loves Victor blindly, and since this novel is told from her perspective we almost believe that he loves her – from what she tells us anyway. So, unless you pay attention to the little clues the author gives us, the ending may or may not surprise you. For example, a major clue that Victor never truly loved Elizabeth (in a healthy way) was from the way he would address her: he always addresses her with possessiveness terms such as “My Elizabeth”. He is clearly in love with the idea of possessing and owning her. (It frustrates me that I can’t go more in-depth about Victor and Elizabeth’s character because I’m TRYING to not spoil anything).
Adam’s part in the story felt too rushed in my opinion. On Goodreads I noticed a few people complain about pacing issues with the novel and I completely agree with them. For the first 3/4 of the novel, there is a lot of focus on characters rather than the plot (which I personally think was a good choice to make this a character-driven novel – Frankenstein is a popular classic and since most of us know the story already, focusing too much on the plot would be extremely boring). But then, the last bit of the novel, where Adam is introduced, the plot as we know it changes and everything just feels too rushed. The ending is satisfying but the journey the author took us on to get to that ending felt weak near the last couple of chapters – especially since it was near the ending she made the switch to focusing on the plot more than the characters. Adam however, is a personification of the author’s answers that Mary Shelley brought forward in her novel, and that’s all I’ll say about him.
Now before I finish off I just wanted to mention something that inspired the author to write this novel in the first place. In the ending of her novel, Kiersten White had a passage where she talked about where she got the idea of this retelling. White talked about how in her copy of Frankenstein, there were passages in the beginning and ending of the story where she talked about her husband – Percy Shelley. Mary Shelley talked about how her husband convinced her to write and always supported her writing and it was very clear from those passages that Mary Shelley was blindly in love with her husband. And that infuriated Kiersten White, while Percy Shelley was the one who convinced Mary Shelley to write, Frankenstein was the result of her ideas, her creativity, she was the one who created modern-day horror and yet she gave her husband all the credit (and it was very clear that her husband didn’t even think her novel was any good).
From those passages and from that anger, White developed the idea of having a female protagonist who is so blindly in love with her husband that she failed to see the madness in him. And thus, the creation of The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein.
So, to finish off, other than some pacing issues, the issues and topic this novel raises is arguably as interesting as the original and is another highly recommended novel.