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The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein

Review

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein

THE DARK DESCENT OF ELIZABETH FRANKENSTEIN by Kiersten White is a dark, twisted retelling of the greatest monster story of all time. Not only does White’s novel do the source material justice, but also creates a new breadth and depth to the world that countless readers have fallen in love with.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN, a book often considered the first science fiction novel and, arguably, one of the greatest novels of the 19th century. Therefore, the publication of White’s newest young adult retelling, centered on the supporting female character in Shelley’s original tale, proves two things about the world of books right now: FRANKENSTEIN is still alive and kicking, and if 1818 was the year for a male genius, 2018 is the year of female protagonists.

"If Shelley’s original novel was a meditation of what being a monster means, and asking who the monsters really are, I think White’s novel is a definitive answer to that question."

White’s retelling is executed from the point of view of Elizabeth Lavenza, the young girl adopted to be Victor’s companion in FRANKENSTEIN, who later becomes his fiancée. Where in the original novel, Elizabeth appeared innocent, docile and utterly in love with Victor, White’s interpretation allows for a much grayer heroine. Saved from an abusive guardian by the Frankenstein family, Elizabeth does whatever necessary, becomes whomever necessary, to survive. She molds herself into the beautiful creature that Victor so idealizes, and remains in his shadow only because she knows that’s where she is safest. Elizabeth is manipulative and smart, a stark contrast to the meek fiancée of Shelley’s tale. Rather than someone who is a caricature of what society says she should be, White gives us a morally gray, smart woman determined to survive. Elizabeth is gritty, despite her perfectly constructed, refined appearance of pinned hair and white dresses.

When Victor disappears in Ingolstadt and stops responding to her letters, Elizabeth departs from the Frankenstein home in Geneva to retrieve him, worried about her security in the family if he does not return. Her journey takes her to charnel houses and disturbing laboratories as she discovers the dark truth of what Victor has been up to. Knowing the monstrous reasons behind his secrecy did not detract from the story at all. In fact, the knowledge of what was coming made it creepier. That being said, White does add some of her own twists, but those are best left for readers to discover on their own.

Following Elizabeth’s point of view was incredibly interesting, because we get to see the true horrors of Victor’s genius, and the way it manifested in childhood. The story is told partially in flashbacks for the slow unveiling of this darker side of life at the Frankenstein house. None of these disturbing stories, however, quite match up to the untold horrors of growing up a woman in 18th century Europe. The suppression of women, and of their ambitions in this society mean that they were often dismissed as hysterical, ignorant, or worse, mad. With no security and no way to determine their own paths, women had to resort to depending on others for mere survival. White has depicted two very different kinds of horror stories in this way.

I love FRANKENSTEIN. I think it is one of the finest works of literature ever written. But when I first read this classic, I was dismayed by the lack of strong female presence in the story. It was ironic, considering Mary Shelley’s own background; she was the daughter of a radical feminist writer, and received a thorough education when women typically were not afforded such opportunities. If any writer in the 1800s was going to depict strong female characters, Shelley would have been a prime candidate. Seeing as though she did not, however, Kiersten White has given us the closest thing to the story that readers may have wanted in THE DARK DESCENT OF ELIZABETH FRANKENSTEIN.

I would highly recommend this retelling to anyone who has read and loved FRANKENSTEIN; while White’s novel can stand on its own, I think it is much more enjoyable having read the original. White does a great job of staying true to the source material, while creating a much larger world in the process, answering some questions, and posing some new ones. If Shelley’s original novel was a meditation of what being a monster means, and asking who the monsters really are, I think White’s novel is a definitive answer to that question.

Reviewed by Cat Barra on October 16, 2018

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein
by Kiersten White