Book Club Review: “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein”

We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Award Winners”, in which we each picked a book that has won an award of some kind.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” by Kiersten White

Publishing Info: Delacorte Press, September 2018

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Award: Bram Stoker Award for a Young Adult Novel

Book Description: 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. 

Kate’s Thoughts

This isn’t the first time that I’ve read “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” by Kiersten White, as I read and reviewed it when it first came out a couple years ago. But I knew that for an Award Winner book I wanted to pick something that was a Bram Stoker Winner, but also wasn’t super terrifying since I know a lot of my book club friends aren’t as into horror as I am. This book seemed to be a good meet in the middle kind of compromise, as it isn’t terribly scary, but also won the Young Adult award the year it came out. So reading it again was perfectly acceptable, as I enjoyed it so much the first time!

And I enjoyed it again this time too. I don’t think that my opinion has really changed too much since the last time I read it (here is the original review if you want context). I was once again struck by how White made comment on gender in English society and culture at the time, and how Elizabeth has sacrificed a lot, including a good deal of her morals, to keep herself safe and secure lest she fall through the cracks. I also liked seeing White compare and contrast three different women characters in this story, as Elizabeth, Justine the governess, and Mary the book seller/amateur scientist all, to me, are three different facets of female protagonist tropes that all have a little bit of exploration and deconstruction. And of course it’s always interesting to look at the character of Victor Frankenstein and to ponder upon who is truly ‘the monster’ within the original story, and let me tell you, White does a really good job of making the case for a VERY clear choice (even if it does still come off a bit two dimensional at times). I think that the only change I had from my initial read was, upon re-reading, I didn’t think that enough was done with The Monster in this retelling. I still like what White did with The Monster in terms of making it feel like a unique take, but I found myself wanting more this time around.

Overall, I still really like “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein”! Nice to give women a voice in a book by a pioneering woman in the horror and Sci-Fi genres!

Serena’s Thoughts

I was super excited when Kate selected this book for her choice for book club. Not only am I a fan of Kiersten White in general, but I really like the original “Frankenstein.” Really like, as in I’ve read it probably three or four times. Kind of a strange choice, I know, for someone who doesn’t count horror as one of her favorite genres! But I’m a sucker for exactly that sort of use of supernatural aspects to delve into the ugliness (and beauty) at the heart of humanity. I also just love the style of writing in that time period with the long, drawn out sentences and extensive vocabulary.

And man did White excel or what! I really liked what she did with this retelling. It was great reading this book as a fan of the original, to see all of the little nods and winks she gives to readers who are familiar with that story. Her use of the classic characters was also on point, reading as familiar enough to their original versions, but also clearly uniquely reimagined for her own take on the story. Elizabeth, of course, is the biggest chance as this is now her story (rather than her fairly unfortunate experience in the original story…).

Not only did White use Elizabeth to expound on the impossible choices faced by women in this time, unable to create their own futures without tying themselves to men, but she also used the character to further explore the same themes of the original “Frankenstein.” Elizabeth is by no means a “good” character. She’s not “bad” either, but her choices are definitely walking a pretty stark moral line. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the story knows that it is meant to highlight the true villainous nature of Victor as the monster rather than his creation. So it was an interesting take to not simply focus on that tired ground (Victor is pretty obviously evil here) but to instead use Elizabeth as the character to exist in shades of grey.

Like Kate said, I do wish there had been a bit more of the Monster here. I liked what we had from him, but that was clearly not the focus of White’s story. I also had a bit of a struggle with the end of the story. A few things felt rather sudden, and, strangely for my own usual preference, I almost wish the very last chapter hadn’t existed and the initial ending at stuck. But that’s just me! Overall, I thought this was a clever, imaginative re-imaging of a beloved classic.

Kate’s Rating 9: Still a fun and feminist retelling of a horror classic!

Serena’s Rating 9: Definitely worthy of the award it received and an excellent read for fans of horror and supernatural books alike!

Book Club Questions

  1. How familiar are you with the original “Frankenstein” story? Do you think that this retelling complements that story? Why or why not?
  2. Elizabeth’s characterization has gone from passive side player to Victor’s protector and enabler. What did you think of this change?
  3. Why do you think Elizabeth was so attached to Justine? What did you think of their friendship?
  4. What do you think White was trying to say about gender expectations and society in this book? How did Elizabeth, Justine, and Mary represent different angles of ‘womanhood’?
  5. Does Elizabeth bear any responsibility on how Victor turned out? How much? What about others around him? Or is Victor solely to blame?
  6. Do you think the Monster played a big enough role in this story? Why or why not?
  7. What did you make of the ending?

Reader’s Advisory

“The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Gothic Retellings”, and “Homages to Mary Shelley and Frankenstein”.

Find “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” at your library using WorldCat, or at a local independent bookstore using IndieBound!!

Next Book Club Book: “Black Sun” by Rebecca Roanhorse

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