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Reading Challenge Review: Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer

A book set in high school (#36 on my 2015 Reading Challenge List): Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer

I was deeply conflicted about reading this book. I’d heard all the common critiques, that its central message is anti-feminist, that it’s metaphorical “abstinence porn,” that its “sparkly vampires” cheapened the vampire archetype. I’d seen the ire unleashed against Twilight fans by “superior” nerds everywhere from Comic-Con on down. But as I’ve said before, I believe in reading broadly in your field, and whatever you might think of these books and their fans, you can’t deny their popularity. They’re a cultural phenomenon: I’m a fantasy author and a cultural sociologist. So, a couple of weeks ago, I requested the first book from the local library, brought it home (feeling a bit as though I should be carrying it in a brown paper bag) and settled in to read.

When I finished it a few days later, my overwhelming emotional reaction wasn’t disgust, or rapture. It was “meh.”

In case you’ve avoided the Twilight Saga even more completely than I have, a very brief summary: Bella Swan is a high school senior who’s just moved from Phoenix to Forks, Washington, a small town on the Olympia Peninsula. When she starts classes at her new high school, she’s intrigued by the very-attractive and very-mysterious Edward Cullen, who she realizes in short order is a vampire. He likes her, too, but insists they should stay away from each other, because she smells too deliciously tempting. And yet, against everyone’s better judgment, they start to date. I know the rest of the series’ plot in bullet point (Bella and Edward break up; Bella briefly dates a werewolf named Jacob; Bella and Edward get married and conceive a child, and then Bella needs to be turned into a vampire to keep the child from killing her), but I don’t think I’ll be reading the other books to learn the details.

I’ll admit, there was some interesting stuff in the text. For all the jokes about “sparkling vampires,” Meyer’s vampire worldbuilding was more thorough than I expected. She essentially argues that because vampires prey on humans, everything about them — their appearance, their voices, their smell — is designed to make them extra-appealing to humans, and the fact that their skin shines like tiny diamonds in the sun is part of that motif. She’s also got a vampire-conversion strategy that I hadn’t seen before, where any victim not killed in the initial attack will be transformed over a period of several days by the venom delivered in the vampire’s bite. There’s even some interesting hints of “vampire culture,” surrounding the question of when conversion is OK, and whether it’s ethical to eat humans (the Cullen family says no — as Husband put it, “they’re vegan vampires” who only eat non-human animals — but it’s hinted they’re not unique in this view).

The opening lines were also quite good, dropping us into a deadly conflict in medias res with these words: “I’d never given much thought to how I would die — though I’d had reason enough in the last few months — but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.”

After that opening, though, things went downhill.

I wasn’t bothered by the romance. I understand the critiques about Bella’s lack of agency and stereotypically “good girl” behavior, and I’d certainly acknowledge those elements’ presence in the book; but I’m willing to accept that there’s a market for those kinds of stories. I was more bothered by the introduction of the werewolf, Jacob, when I realized that he was also an American Indian; the fact that he’s a member of a real-world Indian nation (the Quileute) and that the nation’s traditional belief system does include the story that they’re descended from wolves (at least, according to Wikipedia) made me feel somewhat better about it, but it still left a bad taste in my mouth.

Honestly, though, the biggest thing that bothered me about the book was its lack of substance. I’m not talking about the stakes: I’ve got no problem with a book’s central conflict being the challenge of getting through high school. But this book didn’t make me care about Bella’s problems. I didn’t believe her fears about not having any friends, because it was evident from the first pages that she was going to be “the special kid” in school. I’m also not talking about the suspension of disbelief necessary to make romance work: having been recently immersed in Gabaldon’s Outlander books, I can vouch for the fact that a hero and heroine can be the Most Desirable People Ever and also part of an engaging story. But this book didn’t have that for me. I didn’t really believe the romance; the dialogue felt stilted and the characters didn’t seem to have any real emotional connection.

As I read this story, with the soft-hearted vampire struggling to express his love for the mortal girl who’s like no mortal girl he’s ever met before, the thought that kept coming back to me was “Joss Whedon’s done this, and done it better.” I might have rolled my eyes at Buffy and Angel from time to time (best-ever summary of their relationship available for viewing here), but I also believed them. I never believed Bella and Edward were drawn to each other by anything other than chemical signals.

Though Twilight didn’t draw me in, it’s clear that it resonates with lots of people, and I think that’s absolutely fine; I’ve stepped up on my soapbox here more than once to defend the right to “like what you like,” the idea that no one should have to feel guilty for the fandoms they subscribe to. I also know that a lot of people hate the Twilight franchise with the passion of a thousand fiery suns, and I’d defend their right to that attitude, too. But after reading the first book myself, I’m left wondering what all the fuss is about. To me, this book didn’t seem worth the effort.