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4.0 out of 5 starsImpact
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on October 11, 2008
As a working professional mother I have little time for reading, so I am (and perhaps always have been) a literary snob. When I do find time, I stick to the classics, fiction and non-fiction, and, more recently, again due to time constraints, short fiction of highly regarded authors. E.g. my most recent read (before Twilight) was "The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia" and selected writings of Mark Twain (wonderful) and Dorothy Parker (nice but disappointing). With an English teacher and would-be writer as a mom, I had easy access to the best stuff quite early on. My favourites as a teen definitely included science fiction (Asimov, Huxley, Bradbury). Among other things, I also read everything by Hemingway (considered a "lightweight" by some?). Point being that prior to starting the Twilight series, the closest I ever came to reading popular best-seller was about 20 yrs ago (an Ayn Rand, to see what the fuss was about). However, be forewarned that, as you will see below, I address the question on a very personal note.
Why did I start Twilight? My 13 yr old daughter seems finally to have started to "graduate" from Manga (whew!) to the vampire romance genre. She now tells me bedtime stories about incredibly powerful but disturbingly anti-social female vampire girls, and, frankly, I was getting a little worried. I thought it was time I sampled the fare she was reading. I said to her, "Give me the best you've got, " and it only took her 30 seconds to find her copy of "Twilight" and hand it over. That said, she doesn't even come close to being among the more obsessed fans.
So, you can perhaps see why I am incredibly embarrassed to say that I was mesmerized. By the last page of Twilight, I had the uncanny feeling of having relived adolescence, moment by moment... the naivety, the foolishness, the illusions, the hormone rush. Meyer's rendition of first love, and of infatuation (even the kinds we sometimes experience beyond teen-hood), was nothing short of vivid. I think I may have held my breath throughout all of chapter 13 at the acuteness with which she rendered the powerful and foreboding emotions and physical interplay of first sexual encounters of youth. (I was intrigued to learn that this chapter came to her is a dream that inspired the book.)
Edward - the (dark) prince charming - is a strikingly accurate metaphor for nearly every girl's actual experience with the "first big crush", with his dark side accentuating the universal (and particularly adolescent) thrill of first sexual forays as an exercise in the forbidden. As girls, in real life we are usually utterly and naively convinced that whoever is the target of affection, and frequently undeservedly so, he is somehow perfect in every way, not to mention a strong and wise protector. Meanwhile, unless I'm mistaken, in real life, most adolescent boys in the equation are abused of the same notion, proudly and naively strutting hand in hand with the girl, posing as her knight in shining armour. Other aspects of adolescence that Meyer brings home with incredible immediacy (and which often form the crux of criticism) are the banality of the banter and the self absorption and lack of maturity or focus of the characters (had you chosen your future career path by the age of 16?). While this may contribute, in part, to a two dimensional characterization of Bella and Edward, I think another part of the problem is that the some readers, young and old, may be loathe to remember or admit that we really were (or are?) that way. Didn't we mistake sarcasm for wit, arrogance for intelligence, possessiveness and brooding for declarations of love? Didn't we play stupid verbal games and have petty arguments over nothing, rooted in inexperience and insecurity about our first close ties beyond the family circle? Weren't we shamelessly inflicting our moods and emotions on our beau, often for no other reason than to experiment with their effect on another human being?
Bella? To those who say Bella is boring, I fear that some folks probably do think that a bookworm who isn't on the "most popular" list, doesn't like parties or dressing up, blanches at the idea of going to a prom or early marriage and doesn't need a bevy of friends surrounding her is boring. I submit that vast majority of adolescents, and other humans, are more like her than not. Tell me, what were the redeeming graces of Holden Caulfield in "Catcher in the Rye". Classic or not, the book cast him as infuriatingly self-absorbed and mindlessly insensitive to those around him. Some readers have criticized Bella's character as flawed for so callously using Jacob. Perhaps, also, we're ashamed to admit that we all (male and female) likely had a Jacob in our lives at some point. That person we dated on the "rebound", because they were there, because they were such a kind and likable person, but who didn't inspire in us the passion we though love should be all about. There is scornful criticism that Bella is so shallow that she had nothing to live for, by the second instalment, once Edward leaves. Again, I wonder, have so few of us experienced something akin to the agony Bella went through at the jolt of our "first big break-up"? I know I did - it took me a year - the best way I can describe it is coping with a death - a death of my illusions, perhaps. Much later, I could see more clearly that, although he was incredibly handsome, muscular and brilliant (no, really!), he was actually over-domineering and there were misogynistic tinges to his sheer (and intoxicating) adoration of me. While away at grad school, I got a call from my mother when my sister got that fateful phone call from her first big love -- I was told she literally had to be scraped off the kitchen floor and carried to her bed. This isn't just a girl thing, mind you. I spoke not long ago with a friend about how her son, a good student, fell completely apart at such a time, to the point of failing out of high school. He's been trying to recoup ever since. Did Meyer really get that so wrong?
If we're lucky, we mature to realize that passion and love are not synonyms, that infatuation is suspect - a drug that seriously warps the senses. If we're lucky, we were able to emerge from our first big break-up as a stronger, perhaps wiser person. If we learn from our mistakes, we realize that the kind of person we fall in love with in high school is a far cry from the one we seek out when we're 25 years old, or 35 years old, that the ones we really ought to marry are the Jacobs or even the Mikes out there. But that's life, not fiction.
Moral message? Should Bella do so much sneaking around behind her father's back? Get real. Apparently, even a Mormon has to own up to the facts of life. Some readers are infuriated at the happy ending, that Bella doesn't pay for her self absorption and doesn't have to grow up. Instead, girl gets boy back and marries prince charming, and right out of high school, no less! Where's the college and career ambition? In this, too, I'm fairly forgiving, even though I explicitly raise my children to expect to go to college and beyond and, like Renée, hope they will marry late enough to know reasonably well what they're doing. Aren't fairy takes supposed to have happy endings? One reader argues that fairly tales are supposed to teach a moral lesson and that, even if viewed as such, this one doesn't. Well, find me one single fairy tail involving a Prince Charming that teaches girls to be strong, independent, and assume responsibility for themselves. No, the ones with Prince Charming in them are sheer fantasies about the impossible; commoners making good -rags to riches in a feudal era. I might add that the classics are also littered with women who ultimately fail, even on the somewhat rare occasions (think, Ana Karenina, or for that matter, even Kira in "We the Living") when they appear to be headstrong and intelligent. I'm intrigued to say, that my daughter's own made-up vampire stories feature extremely strong and stubborn girls who don't fall for the guy at all, but rather ignore or rebuff his adoring advances. That is bound to change. Perhaps, the one redeeming grace is that with so little emotional guidance out there, the story might help kids realize, when their turn comes for the inevitable heart wrenching experiences, that they aren't alone.
Writing? I won't begin to try to argue that Meyer is a literary heavyweight - but certainly a cut well above pulp fiction. A good writer is not supposed to "stoop" to clichés, right? Yet, it has struck me - although I could be giving Meyer too much credit -- how does one write for and about teenagers, in a setting of back-woods middle America, in an authentic and accessible voice without writing in the vernacular? Teenagers simply don't sound like Shakespeare, or Updike. Like the clothes they wear, they usually talk (and think?) in a way (maddeningly, to some) that reflects the latest in pop culture. Another feature of good writing is creating tension and suspense, and that the characters are well-developed so that the reader can be interested in them and want to know what happens to them and how they confront the inevitable challenges the story inflicts on them. On both of these scores, Meyer is very good. The only character I didn't get a feel for was Emmett, the brawny one (and discovered that a delightful passage revealing his playful side had hit the cutting room floor). I believe that an attachment to the characters is what drove me (even more incredulously) to the sequels. I also wonder whether I was driven by the prurient interest akin to following soap operas (another thing I've never done). Finally, one of my more personal prerequisites for decent fiction (and one that I always stressed when critiquing my mother's manuscripts for her) is that it allows the reader to see and feel the story. On this score, by using a seemingly simple blend of dialogue, body language, and sensory perceptions, I found Meyer to be right on the mark. For my part, I was living the story as I read.
I have, by the way, read Harry Potter and other prize winning youth literature to my kids, hoping to stoke their interest in books (and kept reading after putting the lights out). It did nothing for my son; Potter's a fantastic read, but we were perhaps a bit put off by the British vernacular and boarding school thing. For what it's worth, my daughter is now an avid reader, no thanks to Harry Potter. The turning point for her a few years ago was our discovery of the quite silly Melanie Martin series. She realized that books didn't have to be serious but could be humorous and fun. Sure, I'm a chagrined that my daughter hasn't graduated to more classic fare, but I'm confident that will come.
Is the series worth the time? I found the time, somehow, in the small margins of my otherwise very busy schedule, and I'm not sorry I did. Rather, I'm mostly mystified, and a little embarrassed at how it hit me like the proverbial truck (run over by Bella's pickup?). Am I simply more of a sucker for a good love story than I ever imagined? (I cry without fail at the end of Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, but oddly, not when they die, but at the exact moment the Friar realizes what a mess he's made.) Would I have been a shameless addict to soap operas, were I not "over" educated? Like much of reading, in general, the Twilight experience is so very personal. Try it and see.