(Please note, here there be spoilers)
Look, Stephanie, it isn’t you. It’s me.
It goes like this: Erin tells me that I’m a romantic at heart, and I think she’s right. I like a little bit of romance in my fiction. I like it when it spices up a fantasy novel. I like to give my characters romances. The challenge of two people falling in love is a wonderful plot complication to me. I like it when the boy and the girl live happily ever after. However, I suspect that I don’t like romance novels.
I tend to jump around in my writing and my reading. My favourite show is Doctor Who, which not only changes settings week to week, but sometimes genres. A romance novel is often, by its nature, formulaic. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy has some sense kicked into him by the feet of fate, and is able to appreciate it when boy gets girl back. Romance is a wonderful spice, but a steady diet of cumin or tarragon would quickly get dull, in my opinion. More than that, the fiction I like doesn’t have the requirements that romance books do. If characters fall in love with each other, that’s part of the story, but if not, that’s fine too, as long as the monster gets beaten. Sometimes if the characters stare lovingly into each others’ eyes too long, you start rooting for the monster.
Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series is a vampire romance. It says so on the tin, so I only have myself to blame for picking it up if it disagrees with me. But I was intrigued. The big box bookstores across North America were setting up midnight parties at the beginning of this month to celebrate the release of the fourth book, Breaking Dawn, a tactic generally associated with the old queen of the young adult/fantasy publishing industry, J.K. Rowling. I’d also heard that Twilight fan fiction was slowly overtaking Harry Potter fan fiction at the various forums. Something was building. Was Stephanie Meyer to be the heir to Rowling’s throne? Should she be? So I bought a copy of Twilight to find out.
I may not have been the right person to find out.
The story starts with Isabella (Bella) Swan’s act of martyrdom, relocating herself from sunny Phoenix, Arizona to rainy Forks, Washington. The moody seventeen-year-old has kindly volunteered to leave her divorced mom and move in with her dad so that mom can travel with the new boyfriend.
Bella expects to hate Forks. She sees herself as an awkward, unpretty girl, who never fit in with the cliques at her Phoenix high school. Moving to a small town that she barely knows is bound to be her own definition of Hell. Fortunately, her father, the police chief of the town, is a hands-off dad. It is, however, immensely frustrating for Bella when Forks doesn’t deliver on its promised stresses. All of the boys can’t help looking at her, and the girls seem to be interested in basking in her glow. To her terror, it seems as though not one, but two boys might be interested in taking her to the dance.
At the same time as Bella unwillingly integrates herself into the school’s tame cliques, she notices a group of students which nobody has anything to do with. A “family” of five high-school students (foster children of a Dr. Carlisle in town) sits apart from the student body in lunch. They are inhumanly graceful, skip school on a whim, and frankly intimidate the rest of the students with their beauty. One in particular, Edward Cullen, seems alternately intrigued and incensed by Bella’s very presence.
So begins the mystery of Edward Cullen, who seems to want to stay away from Bella (and often tells her to stay away) but who can’t seem to bring himself to do just that. When he manages to save Bella’s life by stopping an out-of-control car with his shoulder, the truth comes out: Edward, like the rest of his family, is a vampire — one that abstains from human blood, but one with all of the biological urges, all of the inhuman strength and mental capacity that vampire lore provides. His is fascinated by Bella — by the fact that she seems to be the one person in this school whose mind he can’t read. And the two fall in love, only to have their perfect relationship (mostly just staring googly-eyed at each other) disrupted by tracker vampires who decide to hunt Bella for sport.
It is a testament to Meyer’s abilities as a writer that I got through Twilight. The woman writes well enough to keep me interested, provoking clear images of the setting in my head. The characters are well drawn, and the banter has moments of humour. The best part of the book, for me, was the first half as Bella explores the mystery of who Edward Cullen is. The sense of discovery gives that part of the book a freshness that pulls the reader along, and we do get to see the better half of Bella as she uses her wits and tenacity to finally suss out the secret from Edward.
On paper, Edward is also a fascinating character, forced to deny his bloodlust around humans, and clearly struggling when temptation (Bella) is thrust in his path. You could do a lot with Edward, and Meyer does make good use of him, although the effect is hampered by the decision (perfectly legitimate) to keep the story tightly in Bella’s point of view. As a result, the sense of Edward’s struggle was muted.
But I still came out of this novel irked by what I had read, and I know that I’m not alone. I’m sure part of my frustration is professional jealousy — that Meyer has managed to succeed far better than I have. But while I was similarly jealous over J.K. Rowling’s success, I still had to admit that Harry Potter was a very good novel series. The characters were well drawn and developed remarkably over the seven books. Rowling was an excellent narrator (Meyer’s style is more stilted) and there was depth there. The Harry Potter series could be seen as an exploration of the problems of racism, or even as an evisceration of the Thatcher years in England. Meyer offers no such depth here, only romance.
And while that was what Meyer advertised from the get go, I don’t get the sense of a real romance here. Bella and Edward do not grow together over the course of the book but are rather thrust together by authorial fiat. Meyer almost makes it work, but cannot help but achieve her goals by removing a fair chunk of Bella’s free will, and even her sense of self preservation. At the end of chapter ten, Bella tells us that she is completely and totally in love with Edward. Um… but why? She hardly knows the man, even though he has saved her life (twice) and she has sussed out his secret. In terms of character traits, Edward is too confused over his conflicting physical feelings for Bella to coherently articulate what is it that draws him to her romantically. But Meyer shoves that aside for longing looks and lots of caresses.
Finally, on page 248 as Bella prepares for her “date” with Edward the next day, we encountered the following paragraph:
“I intuitively knew — and sensed he did, too — that tomorrow would be pivotal. Our relationship couldn’t continue to balance, as it did, on the point of a knife. We would fall off one edge or the other, depending entirely upon his decision, or his instincts. My decision was made, made before I’d ever consciously chosen, and I was committed to seeing it through. Because there was nothing more terrifying to me, more excruciating, than the thought of turning away from him. It was an impossibility.”
At which point Erin, who had been sniping at the narrative occasionally, blurted out, “but why, Bella?! Why?!”
The “upon his decision, or his instincts” line describes two ways their “date” could go. They’re heading off into the woods. Either he would choose to love her, or he would choose to eat her, and those were the only two choices Bella was allowing. Indeed, she deliberately goes about telling everyone that earlier plans with Edward are cancelled, so as not to get him in trouble should he end up choosing to see her as meat.
Um… excuse me?!
Neither Erin nor I have been sold, at this point, that Bella’s desire to forsake option three (run like hell back to Phoenix) is anything more than a mental defect. This aspect of Bella is the root problem of Twilight. Bella starts well as a character; she’s sardonic, intelligent, somewhat standoff-ish — the sort of thing that many teenagers could identify with. But that’s the deck Bella is dealt with at the start of the book when she moves to Forks. She doesn’t grow this character; she doesn’t earn it. Throughout the first thirteen chapters, Bella doesn’t really discover anything about herself. Bella doesn’t change. And, most frustratingly, the only thing drawing Bella to Edward, other than raw sexual desire, is curiosity.
Even more alarming is the revelation that Edward has been sneaking into Bella’s bedroom at night, long before the two admit their love for each other, to just watch her as she sleeps. And she’s fine with that. I guess having a creepy stalker is okay if he’s hot. Bella acts like a perfect victim of abuse. She refuses to exhibit any sense of self-preservation, and wishes nothing more than to have her choices taken away from her and given to someone else.
All this becomes problematic given the shadow that Stephanie Meyer operates under. Nope, not Anne Rice: Joss Whedon. Girl power Twilight ain’t. And while it is good that Meyer set about charting her own path in the vampire lore, Bella’s character still makes me think that Twilight is what you’d get if you took Buffy: the Vampire Slayer, kept some of the humour, ditched the world-threatening baddies, kept the sex appeal, and then drained Buffy of almost all of her self worth as a character. This is Buffy as the dutiful wife, vampirism as a metaphor for an abusive relationship, without condemning the abuser.
It’s not that I object to the relationship between Bella and Edward, it’s that, unlike Buffy and Angel, or Buffy and Spike, Bella doesn’t grow in order to enter into her relationship with Edward, and she certainly doesn’t enter into that relationship as an equal partner. Had Meyer taken the time to show us the reasons, beyond sexual, beyond curiosity, that brings Bella to the decision to throw away her sense of self-preservation and fall in love with a vampire who isn’t yet sure if he can stop himself from killing her, then Twilight would have been a lot more powerful book. Had Meyer given us a Bella who maintained some control over her relationship with Edward, then I’d be far less inclined to want to shake the young woman, or wish someone else would call the police.
Instead, the relationship between Bella and Edward doesn’t really develop beyond the physical. Clichéd love-at-first-sight short circuits Bella’s development as a person. Bella constantly focuses on the inhuman beauty of her lover, his manly, muscular chest, his porcelain features, the fact that he sparkles in sunshine (gag!), and only gives passing mention to his intelligence. She is understandably flattered that Edward the Vampire would fight against his own nature to love her, but it is still a shame to see a supposedly modern female character, of above-average intelligence, to be swept up by looks and attention.
And Bella gives of herself, all the time, and very rarely acts for her own self interest. She loves Edward unconditionally when I think a more sensible character would have been at least more wary. Even her arrival in Forks is an act of self-sacrifice, putting herself in her father’s hands so that her divorced mother could follow around her new beau. This is a book about a girl who chooses to give all her choices away, and it doesn’t seem to get much better in the sequels.
The superficiality of Bella’s love for Edward makes me wonder at the message this is sending to teenage readers. Among doting fans, some express a longing for “their Edward” to come along. My advice to my daughters when someone like Edward shows up? Use pepper spray. I will be there to back you up with the baseball bat. That this book appeals to certain people isn’t a surprise: it ably captures our youthful perceptions of what first love is like. What it doesn’t capture is the reality of love, and I believe our daughters deserve better than that.
While I would not seek to keep this book out of anybody’s hands, I would be, frankly, disturbed if my daughters were to take it up.
Unless, of course, it was their intent to point at it and laugh.
- Author Jeff Vandermeer’s take on Why the Twilight Series Bugs Me.
- Scathing Book Review’s review of Breaking Dawn is… wait for it… scathing!
- A review of Twilight by Ruby.
- And, for the other side of the coin, Thoughts of an Aspiring Teenage Writer (who writes very well) loves the Twilight series and calls Breaking Dawn the best book of the year. (See also here)