One of the things that I do when I am supposed to be finishing my own books is read fun novels by other people. It’s a whole evil ritual now. See, first I go to the bookstore (usually Joseph-Beth, one of the best indy bookstores of all time) a couple of weeks before my own deadline. I salivate over some novels and then choose two or three that I plan to read once my own deadline is finished. The trouble is, I never seem to be able to wait until then to read them. This is what happened with Twilight, a can’t-put-downable YA novel about vampires and the girls who love them. My friend Donna Freitas recommended it to me because I’m a sucker, no pun intended, for a good vampire story. So I alternated a couple of hours of work on my own book with downing a chapter or two or three from Twilight.
For a first novel, the story is amazingly well-plotted. Stephenie Meyer seems to have an instinctive sense for how to entice the reader into turning those pages, revealing just enough to keep us absorbed. Without leaking too much of the plot, let me just say that a 17-year-old girl moves from Phoenix to a small town in Washington state, where she discovers true love in the marble-cold arms of a vampire who happens to be a fellow high school student. (He chose Washington state for its rainy, sunless climate, and he’s been in high school for a LOOOOOONG time.) Edward and his “family” of assorted vampires have made a pact that they will not feed off humans, a temptation they withstand by hunting for grizzly bears near Mount Rainier. Delicious.
What ensues has many of the elements of the timeless classic: forbidden, all-consuming love; the struggle between good and evil; the secrets lurking in the past. It’s a profoundly moral tale of choosing goodness and light when you have every reason to follow a more selfish and destructive path.
Meyer takes traditional vampire lore and adds her own unique grace notes. Her vampires aren’t just eternally young, supernaturally strong, and impossibly beautiful, cause that’s obviously not enough to impress folks nowadays. Many of her vamps also have unusual psychic powers like mind-reading, empathy, and clairvoyance (shades of Drusilla on Buffy, only without the utter barminess). I took great delight in both the vampiric and human worlds Meyer created. Some of the scenes are achingly beautiful and poignant. I truly look forward to what happens next in what I presume will be a series; Meyer leaves the ending wide open for a sequel.
So why does this not get a full complement of stars? Well, the feminist in me hated it, to put it bluntly. I haven’t read such a retrogressive book in a long time. Bella, our heroine (the name means beautiful, and it becomes clear in the book that this is what is most valued in Bella), is consistently described as perceptive, observant, clever, etc. But what comes across loud and clear through Bella’s actions is that she is weak, unobservant, and almost ridiculously dependent. By the end of the novel, after Bella has been saved from certain death for the third time by her vampire hero, I wanted to throw the book. (I refrained from this, as the novel is a 500-odd-page hardcover, and could hurt someone.)
It’s fine to make it a part of Bella’s character that she’s uncoordinated in gym class, but does she need to trip over her own feet all the time, drop her keys, and faint repeatedly? She sometimes comes across as one of those female slapstick characters from the 1930s genre films, and that’s unfortunately not a compliment.
(And don’t even get me started about why Edward had to save her that third time in the first place; basically, she places herself in danger by making a colossally stupid decision that I don’t find plausible if she’s nearly as smart and perceptive as the author keeps insisting she is.)
Also disturbing are Edward’s controlling nature and almost abusively mercurial personality. Granted, he’s a vampire, so naturally he’s going to be on edge. ;-) But Edward is also always dictating the terms of their relationship; Bella is not allowed to express herself physically. When she responds to his kiss with passion, he puts the brakes on immediately. It boils down to the old stereotype of women being sexual temptresses to men, who must make heroic efforts to control their appetites. Bella is sexual object. When she naturally expresses her own desire, it’s anathema and is instantly suppressed.
Bella is a more interesting character in the first half of the novel than in the second, when she loses a good portion of her identity in the relationship, even to the point of wanting to become a vampire herself. The Little Mermaid’s got nothing on this chick. It’s not just her voice she’s willing to trade in to snare a man, but her whole identity as a human being. And this is romantic?
This thought came home to me when I was trying to cast the film version of this in my mind. (And it should be a film; it would translate beautifully to the screen, and much of the novel consists of dialogue anyway.) I realized that any one of a number of young actresses could make a wonderful Bella: Scarlett Johansson, Claire Danes, or Alexis Bledel, for example. But I was having a much harder time thinking of someone to play Edward. That actor would need to embody polar opposites: youth and maturity, moral courage and believable darkness, beauty and an animalistic ugliness. That’s a tall order. Meyer seems to throw all of her energy into Edward’s character, despite the fact that the novel is told in the first person from Bella’s POV.
So those were the things that bugged me. But I loved the world that Meyer created, and the whole tension of this ad hoc vampire family trying to be noble and good. The love story was often beautiful despite the aforementioned gender issues. (Who could resist lines like “You are my life now”?) I loved Meyer’s sense of humor and witty observations about teen life. The pacing was particularly excellent; I couldn’t put it down and wound up staying up pretty late to finish it. As I said, I look forward to seeing what Meyer comes up with next. But I do hope she makes Bella a much stronger character, or I’ll have to stand in line to be the next person trying to do Bella in.