Review #4: Elixir, by Hilary Duff

it's not poisonous, it's just boring
it’s not poisonous, it’s just boring

HELLO AGAIN.   I’ve been reading and reading and reading, but there’s a difference between passively consuming a book and taking the time to think up barbed insults about how much it sucks, so.  Ideally I would like to discuss a book a week, starting now, but let’s see how that goes.  Anyway, here is the long-promised (but doubtlessly not awaited) discussion of Elixir, Hilary Duff’s sad attempt at YA supernatural womance. Yes, you read that correctly–this book was written by that Hilary Duff, a.k.a. Lizzie McGuire, who, like many products of the Disney channel, has gone on to market herself in any way imaginable.  She acts (kind of), she sings (sorta), she has a perfume (naturally) and, most recently, she’s decided to dip her toesies into the lucrative well of YA fiction.  However, lest you imagine this shimmering pop star sitting in front of a laptop and typing merrily away, keep in mind that the book’s title page–though not the cover itself–notes that it was written with the help of one Elise Allen.  In interviews, Duff framed the relationship as a series of fun and cozy back-and-forth sessions, and that might be true, but I’m willing to bet that Ms. Allen did most of the heavy lifting.  The book is terrible either way, though, so I suppose it doesn’t really matter.

The cover suffers from the pervasive, apparently mandatory edicts set forth by Twilight: dark background, bright, often floral object in the center.  The effect isn’t unappealing, it’s just nothing new.  These covers promise interest, mystery, and intrigue, but what they deliver–without fail–is insufferable banality.  Duff’s case is no different.

Clea Raymond stars in this tale of a privileged white girl who, despite being only seventeen, has been to more places, accomplished more feats, and worn better clothes than the average, say, Hollywood starlet?  For while Clea is not an actress, she certainly lives like one.  She’s on a Paris dance floor in the book’s opening pages, having a panic attack.  She gets some fresh air and calms herself with her special iris pendant, given to her by her late father–his disappearance and presumed death a year prior are the causes of her stress. Sort of an interesting start, yes?  Not stunning in its freshness and originality, but I’m of the mind that a story doesn’t need to reinvent the plot point in order to be compelling.

Ultimately, good stories are about conflict, and the most interesting conflicts are about the troubles we have relating to our world and to each other.  It’s the way that picture is painted that makes a story worthwhile, and I have to say that this book is the equivalent of a particularly talent-challenged kindergartener’s crayon drawing.

The writing itself is serviceable.  It’s not particularly evocative or tactile; it doesn’t try to say much beyond the scene itself; it’s just there, doing a job, going home at five ‘o clock.  There’s an attempt by Duff-Allen to give Clea the sassy ‘voice’ common to young lady protagonists by interspersing some hip colloquialisms here and there, but for the most part the authorial voice reads not like a vulnerable 17-year old but like a worldly woman in, perhaps, her mid-twenties.

Coincidentally, Ms. Duff is also a worldly woman in her mid-twenties. Coincidentally, Ms. Duff is also a ridiculously wealthy jet-setter who is loved and pampered by everyone in her immediate proximity, much like Clea.

Her father was a prominent surgeon, archeologist and professor, and her mother is a powerful politician, a Senator with Clinton-like clout (but much more respect and affection from the masses).  Actually, pretty much everyone loves Clea and her family all of the time.  They are paragons; they are shining beacons of morality and kindness.  Much is made of the missing father’s charitable work–in fact, he disappeared while working with impoverished communities in Chile.  He’s just as famous and appreciated as Clea’s mother, due to his discovery of several ancient phials of … nothing.  All this nothing will be important (and by important I mean ‘used as the dull centerpiece of this dull-ass story’) later, but let’s return to our golden heroine for a moment. You may have gathered by now that Clea shares a number of traits with her creator.  This girl is a Mary Sue of the highest order; she is textbook self-insert.

Now, listen: I’m the last person to think that author avatars are a bad thing.  I actually find the frothing anti-Mary Sue movement to be tedious and tiresome, especially since many of its proponents tend to veil their internalized misogyny with diatribes about ‘exposing’ these types of characters in various published media (the canon_sue community on LJ is a cesspit of this type of thinking).  There is nothing inherently wrong with using yourself as a character, and, indeed, I hold with the notion that all characters contain elements of the person who created them.  We are vast and contain multitudes, etc. Here’s the thing, though.  Many times, when novice (or just not very good, as in the case of Ms. Duff) writers use themselves as templates for their protagonists, they give in to the temptation of a little–or a big–makeover.  The character becomes a glossy, cardboard vision of what that writer might like to be, or, worse, of how they already see themselves.  This is problematic because no one is without flaws.  And, honestly, even if you did manage to find somebody flawless, you wouldn’t want to read an epic saga about that person, would you?

Flaws are what make people interesting and relatable.  If a character has no failings, no vulnerabilities, no insecurities or odd quirks and never, ever makes a poor decision, then I can’t sympathize with them, because to me, that character has no root in humanity. Besides all of that, it’s just goddamn annoying.  Clea is perfect and talented to the point of frustration.  She’s seventeen, but she’s already self-assured, confident, and classy–in contrast to her best friend, Rayna, who is portrayed as an irrepressible (read: irresponsible) wild child (read: slut) that Clea must look after with an exasperated, indulgent smile on her face.  Indeed, Clea relates to almost everyone in her life this way.

She has a best guy friend named Ben who is willing to open any number of veins for her (and who is, of course, secretly in love with her) and a maid named Piri who fusses and clucks over her at every available opportunity.  Ben, at twenty, has a doctorate, speaks “more languages than is humanly possible, and knows something about pretty much everything” — being generous, that means he must have graduated high school at age twelve.  That’s only a year after the world’s youngest doctor. Is anyone in this book a real person?  No, sadly not.  

Piri suffers the most from this sense of unreality, and she’s probably the most discomfiting character in the story, even worse than the inevitable Stalker Boyfriend who shows up a bit later.  She’s Hungarian, hailing from a little village know as Stereotypia, and her main purpose (as far as I can tell) is to serve as comic relief.  Because it’s hilarious to have a foreign maid who stuffs you with dessert and speaks solely in superstitions.  You think I’m kidding, but here’s an example:

“What happened in there?” Piri asked.

“I’m fine!” I called.  “Just a bad dream.”

The door flung open.

“A bad dream?” Piri tsked with alarm.  “Someone walking over your grave.  Wear your clothes inside out today; turn your luck around.”

She stared at me, waiting for me give the absurd superstition its due respect.”

C.f. also throwing cups of water in Clea’s wake for good luck and sitting in the presence of a baby, etc.  This ain’t cute, especially not since Clea treats Piri with the same affectionate condescension as she does her BFF, Rayna.  Every time the text references one of these traditions, there’s always a follow-up line from the narration about how kooky and crazy that ol’ maid is, with her funny foreign ways.  It’s the laziest, cheapest kind of writing: when good humor employs stereotypes, it’s to show a point, or reveal something hidden that the stereotype glosses over.  Here, Duff-Allen rely on broadly understood generalizations (i.e., that foreigners are weird and have weird customs) to characterize Piri; they give her no other traits or shades of depth.

Not that anyone here is from the deep end of the pool, anyway.  As the excerpt implies, Clea’s been having some nasty dreams.  They depict her–or someone like her–in another life, and they usually end with other-her dying unpleasantly.  She’s been having these ever since her father passed away, with nary a clue as to why or how to stop them.    That is, until she returns from the Paris adventure and loads up some photos on her computer.  Y’see, despite being seventeen, Clea is also a world-famous photojournalist.  The description of how she interacts with the camera made me physically cringe:

Quickly I yanked off the cocktail dress and hells and pulled on a pair of silk long johns, my favorite jeans, a turtleneck, a thick pullover sweater, a hoodie, and a knit beanie hat.  No gloves–gloves form a barrier between me and the camera; they break our connection.

Oh, okay.  That’s hella deep, Ms. Duff, almost as much as this winning description of a photograph itself:

He seemed wrapped in his own thoughts. His mane of dark, tousled hair, chiseled cheekbones, and thick eyebrows were stunning, but some inward pain twisted his eyes and mouth away from beauty and toward something more difficult and profound.

Something like what, Ms. Duff?  Could you maybe be a little more specific here, instead of throwing out words that state an emotion rather than show it?  Lord have mercy.  Listen, folks.  The truth is that beauty and profundity are both essentially empty words, because everything has different ideas as to what is beautiful and what is profound.  From the description, we can tell that he has a typically attractive face, but what exactly is profound about his pain? What kind of pain is it?  The pain of loss?  The pain of loneliness?  The pain of an unwisely eaten piece of cheese?  Who the fuck knows.  It’s just more laziness from this dull Duff-Allen duo.

Anyhow, the dude in question is Sage, a fella who appears mysteriously in the background of every photo that Clea’s taken while on her recent globetrotting excursion.  He literally lurks at the edges of every frame.  Clea at least has the good sense to be a little freaked out by this, though of course she’s drawn to him, can’t take her eyes off of him, blah blah blah.

Cutting to the chase: Sage is an immortal, made so by the Elixir of Life.  If you guessed that’s what used to fill up the empty vials Clea’s dad found, you get a prize (look under your seat).  Ben and Clea eventually track him down in Chile, where a bunch of stupid crap happens.  Nameless bad dudes try to kidnap Clea, Sage saves the day, they end up having ~alone time in a cave, etc.  Matters eventually curdle/culminate in another tracking mission, this for a woman named Magda Alessandri, who has some kind of connection to the Elixir and may also be Shakespeare’s Dark Lady and whatever the fuck else. They track this woman to Shibuya and eventually find her, a desiccated and bitter old woman who really hates Sage for breaking some set of rules that surround the Elixir’s keeping and use.  I would enumerate them for you, except that I just don’t care.

So Magda is nursing a five centuries’ old grudge against Sage, which gives the narrative a convenient reason to infodump all the ‘mystery’ on Clea, as Magda is pretty sure that the truth is going to make Princess Perfect upset.  It’s revealed that, in a past life (roundabouts the sixteenth century), Sage was part of a Society that protected the Elixir, and that past-life Ben was a greedy asshole who wanted in on that shit–but could not be in on that shit ‘cos he was poor and lol classism.  Past-Ben, a dumbass named Giovanni, tried to boast about knowing Sage and the Society to some of his thug friends, who in turn did what thugs do and busted up the place.  The narrative is quick to paint past-Ben as an unwitting victim of thuggishness, but come on–if this kid is so smart, shouldn’t he possibly have enough foresight to realize that if you dangle a diamond in front of a criminal, he is most likely going to leap at that rock the first chance he gets?  I mean, really.

Soo the thugs go in there and break everything, and they aren’t too kind to past-Clea, either. Everyone dies, except for Magda and Sage; Magda because of an enchantment done by her ‘mystic’ mother, Sage because the thugs tested the Elixir out on him (for, again, some reason).  The potion does what it says on the tin, and Sage eventually gets his revenge on the douchebros who killed his people.  But, of course, he is now also immortal and–AGAIN, FOR SOME REASON–has locked himself into a terrible, eternal cycle in which he is fated to meet all of Clea’s incarnations throughout the years, love them, and then do nothing when she is inevitably brutally killed.

I remember this kind of cycle as a plot point in the manga Angel Sanctuary, except in that story it actually made something like sense, because Setsuna’s constant gory death/rebirth was meant to be a punishment from Powers that Be.  There doesn’t seem to be any Looming Badness here; it’s just … the potion made you immortal, now this girl you know is gonna die all the time for it.  Not even you.  Just this girl.  That you know.  OK.

The only way to break this circle of love is for Sage to do some kinda ritual that severs his soul from his body and kills him for-ever, plus also puts him in hellish purgatory, plus kills his dog (not really, but that’s what it seemed like).  He’s gonna do it, of course.  For true wuv.  I haven’t said much about Sage, I realize, but there isn’t much to say that I haven’t already written before about every other dude of his kind.  He’s dark, he’s tormented, he’s a little creepy in the intensity of his fixations.  Like everyone else in this assemblage, he’s also not particularly developed.  I can’t even say he’s that offensive, because he isn’t present enough to offend.  He’s just Edward-lite, I guess.

So does he?  Well we never know, dear reader!  The book ends with Sage kidnapped by the aforementioned baddies, who are part of the modern-day version of the Society; they call themselves the Saviors of Eternal Life or somesuch.  There’s another group at large named Cursed Vengeance; I’m not really sure what their deal is (aside from raiding in World of Warcraft, as the name implies).  The book ends with Sage taken and Clea numb with the angst of it all.  We don’t know where he is or what these Savior folks are gonna do with him, but, luckily, there was apparently a law passed that all YA books have to be trilogies, at the very least, so there’s another installment coming in October.  Personally, I hope the guy killed himself.

One final note: there’s a passage early on that discusses Clea’s fan-tastic photojournalism career, and much is made of how she sent out her portfolio under a pseudonym so that no one would give her jobs just ‘cos of her famosity.  I can’t help but wonder if that isn’t some less-than-sly reference to the book itself.  Trust me, honey, we all know you got this deal because of your name.  I’m not judging you because you’re a pop star.  I’m judging you because this book sucks.

Rating: half a coke can.  Aside from the travesty that is Piri’s character, it’s too bland and poorly realized to cause real insult–aside from the meta-textual insult that pretty much anyone with a wad of money can put a book out, but that’s a universal truth that cannot be fairly laid at Ms. Duff’s feet.

2 thoughts on “Review #4: Elixir, by Hilary Duff”

  1. Man I can’t tell you how much I love your book reviews. So snappy and fun and very well written. I hope someday to see more reviews!

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