Once upon a time, there was a wonderful show called Mystery Science Theater 3000. It taught us all a very important lesson – that even the most hackneyed, poorly made, and all around worst “works of art” can be made entertaining and enjoyable if you simply poke fun at them as you go along. It was in this spirit that I read Stephenie Meyer’s ode to fangirl fantasies, whiny vampires, and the act of spitting on Bram Stoker’s grave, better known as “Twilight.”
I embarked on this treacherous journey at the urging of my girlfriend, who is herself an ardent detractor of the novel and its writing style. She received my sardonic running commentary as I slogged through page after page of this ripe-for-ridicule tale, and she has been my shepherd through this strange land of plot holes and tween-lit. When she encouraged me to do a full review, how could I refuse? She was also kind enough to provide me with a few NPR reviews of the book for guidance, and she even made the lovely pictures you see accompanying the review. Without further ado, here are my thoughts on that most celebrated of novels – Twilight.
The Writing, And I Use the Term Loosely
The writing in this book makes “The Da Vinci Code” look like “Wuthering Heights.” Stephenie Meyer is in a particularly odd position in that she seems to at least know what the various types of literary devices are, and yet she clearly has no idea how to use them. She’s very keen on using all the tips and tricks she picked up from some weekend-long authors’ seminar that she must have attended before writing this book, but she wields them with all the skill and success of a two-year-old’s first attempt at finger painting. If I had a nickel for every cringe-worthy metaphor or simile in this book, I would be as wealthy as Meyer herself.
As NPR’s commentators pointed out, Meyer has penchant for not only lame, but redundant phrases like “She had a beautiful figure, the kind you saw on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue,” or “I quickly rubbed my hand across my cheek, and sure enough, traitor tears were there, betraying me.” The former is as vague and generic a description as any you’ll find in literature. Meyer may as well have just written, “she was pretty.” The latter description of tear-based betrayal is, in addition to just being terrible phrasing to begin with, mostly surplusage, or literary filler. My exact comments upon coming across that “traitor tears” passage were, “Little did Bella realize, her tear ducts had once belonged to Benedict Arnold.” If there is one thing Meyer does in her writing, it’s hammer home, whatever it is she’s trying to say, over and over again.
The worst offender in this regard is the way that Meyer describes how perfect and beautiful Edward is fifty million times until the audience just starts to grow nauseous. He’s attractive. We get it. You don’t have to remind the reader of that fact every three paragraphs. After the first fifty pages, those preteen girls already have an image in their mind of Edward as a flawless, inoffensive, non-threatening Adonis anyway. There’s no need to pile on. But Meyer just cannot resist constantly reminding us that Edward is, in fact, everyone’s dream in leather pants.
What’s more, the pacing of the book is downright awful. Almost nothing happens for the first seventy-five percent of the novel. Then, all of the sudden, the action kicks into overdrive in the remaining one hundred pages or so. Sure, sometimes a slow burn can work in a novel, but only if you make interesting three-dimensional protagonists. It does not bode well for main characters who are essentially just blank avatars for drooling girls to see as thin substitutes for themselves. An agonizingly tedious “character study” of Bella reveals only three things: 1. She likes Edward 2. She’s clumsy and 3. She has a callous disregard for her father.
With respect to the pacing, Monkey See’s Marc Hirsch complained about the slow reveal of Bella figuring out that Edward is a vampire. It’s harder for me to gauge that progression, since anyone who’s been on the internet in the last few years knows that Edward is not your average boy next door, but the reveal did seem pretty anticlimactic. Still, it’s hard to discern how much of that lack of excitement is due to my knowing the “secret” already and how much of it is the fact that there was an insufficient or inept build to that reveal.
That said, NPR’s Linda Holmes deserves the gold medal in Twilight-bashing for pointing out that for all the crap we give Meyer about her writing, and deservedly so, any half-decent editor should have been able to clean up a great deal of this nonsense. This was not a self-released book. Many people had to have at least skimmed through “Twilight” and decided that it was fit for publication as is. They are almost as much to blame as Meyer herself. On the other hand, maybe the book’s editor did clean it up before releasing it to the public. If this is the edited version, I’d hate to see the first draft.
Bella, Our Milquetoast Protagonist
Many critics have accused Bella of being unlikeable. I don’t agree. She’s simply bland. Ann from Arrested Development bland. To be fair to those critics, she does make a number of idiotic decisions, and she blows romantic stuff out of proportion, but find me a teenage girl who doesn’t. It’s hard to hate something you’re just bored with.
There’s something to be said for disliking Bella simply because she is an uninteresting character when what you want from a novel is a captivating and engaging protagonist. There’s also something to be said for developing some aversion to Bella because you end up slogging through a book with a main character who’s as vapid and dull as she is. The other side of the coin is that I would imagine that Bella speaks to Meyer’s target audience, and the legions of screaming teenage fans seem to agree with me. I would be willing to wager Stephenie Meyer’s millions that there’s many young girls who read this book and say “Bella is just like me!” Part of that is that Meyer draws the character so broadly that any tween girl could fit herself into the confines of the character, but part of it is that the few details Meyer sketches in are pretty generic teenage girl tropes, annoying though they may be.
That said, the whole “woe is me, I’m so unpopular and miserable” when boys are tripping over themselves to date her and girls are bending over backward to be her friend is pretty ridiculous. Yet, that type of insecurity, the kind that bears no relation to reality, is far from unheard of when it comes to teenage girls. I’m willing to give Meyer a pass on that if only for the verisimilitude. That does not make Bella someone you want to spend three hundred plus pages with, though.
The one thing that makes Bella unlikeable is the way she treats her father. Here is a man who welcomes Bella into his life with open arms. He does everything he can, admittedly in his own way, to make her feel at home and his reward is, at best, a callous disregard from his only daughter. It would be one thing if he were the equivalent of an evil stepmother or something, but he isn’t. He is a caring, concerned father, and Bella does nothing beyond look down on him and seem annoyed about the fact that he cares. Near the end of the novel where she brings up the specter of his divorce, it was a cruel and completely unnecessary sucker punch. If there’s any reason to truly dislike Bella as a protagonist, it’s this, but the rest of the rationales offered generally just give us a series of reasons not to care about her.
The Relationship a.k.a. “He’s Dreamy.” “You’re mine.”
If there’s one thing to be said in Stephenie Meyer’s favor about the idea of “Twilight” in general, it’s that she does do a bit of a twist on the usual knight in shining armor story. Having a traditionally “dark” or “evil” character be the gallant savior has, at the very least, aspirations of rising above the typical and expected. The other side of that coin, however, is that at heart, it’s still just another knight in shining armor story, and Bella ends up being just another damsel in distress.
Now, to her credit, Meyer does try to counter balance this in the slightest little bit. Bella, over the objections of others, insists on her own escape plan. She also manages to figure out a way to sneak off and face the evil vampire on her own. Yet, whether it’s the careering van, the initial confrontation with the “hunting” vampires, or the final fight with the main antagonist, it’s Edward who saves the day while poor helpless Bella sits back and watches, gushing as her perfect beautiful boyfriend comes in and takes care of everything.
Maybe the proper response to this criticism is, “She’s a human in a world of vampires. Of course she’s going to be helpless; this isn’t Buffy,” but it still sends the reader off with a message akin to “someday my prince will come.” That prince may be a hundred year old vampire perving in on a teenage girl, but he’ll fix everything nonetheless.
Whatever “love” exists between Bella and Edward, it’s not a love between equals. Linda Holmes is right to point out that they do try to balance this a little bit with Bella being the one person whose mind Edward cannot read, but it’s a pretty paltry counterweight when perfect Edward not only saves the day time and time again, but orders Bella around and picks her up and carries her when she protests.
Now look, not every writer telling stories of love has to take up the mantle and high ideals of feminism. Meyer is far from the first author (and it pains me to use that word in reference to her) to tell this kind of story. Still, there is something troubling about the idea of young women everywhere looking to this as the ideal sort of love. Say what you will about the Disney princesses but even they seem to have more backbone than Bella. What’s more, their princes seem far less possessive and, dare I say, dictatorial than Edward.
Marc Hirsch says it best when he describes it as “though they each individually decided on the other as their True Love for random reasons.” What’s more, the part of the story that would actually give the pair some depth, the process of Bella and Edward getting to know each other and developing an affection for each other, is essentially done as a montage in the book. Sure, the audience does not need to know every little detail about their falling in love, but instead we’re essentially told about how the characters develop and affection for each other rather than seeing it a la Mr. Plinkett’s review of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones .
You cannot simply gloss over something so central to the readers developing a connection to the characters and their relationship. We never get anything deeper than “love at first sight.” That only barely works in a two hour movie, and no self-respecting screenwriter would do it, but it definitely doesn’t work in 500-page novel, particularly one focused on a love story. And maybe that’s where it’s much harder to give Meyer a pass. Bella may just be a teenage girl, but Edward is not a teenage boy. He’s your grandfather’s grandfather. As such, he should be quite above this “you’re my salvation” nonsense that’s for more apt for a prepubescent boy to utter to his sweetheart on the school bus ride to the zoo.
Edward Sullen: The Angsty, Stalking, Senior Citizen
Edward Cullen is to vampires what Tila Tequila is to women’s rights or what KFC’s doubledown is to fine cuisine. Sure, every author that deals in the supernatural mixes and matches with the lore a bit, but Meyer strips away everything that really makes the vampire one of those few mythical creatures that has stayed so ingrained in our culture. You’re allowed to pick and choose your own mythos, but you damn well better succeed at it, particularly with an archetype as well-established as vampires. There is nothing dark about Edward, at least nothing with any significance. He does prance around complaining of his curse, but it feels much better suited for a whiny teenager than a dark demon. Irrespective of even the sparkling, there’s nothing truly mysterious or even slightly sinister about Edward. He’s just Superman who’s traded in his tights for Adam Lambert’s wardrobe. And that’s part of what makes Edward’s “conflict” so toothless, if you’ll pardon the expression. It’s hard to feel any real fear for Bella when, for all Edward’s pontificating about “what he’s capable of,” he’s portrayed as a sparkly teddy bear made out of marble. We’re meant to see a threat, a monster in human form, a creature teetering on the edge of darkness, and instead we just have a cuddly, walking-allegory for Mormon abstinence.
Also with respect to Edward’s personality, there have also been a number of objections to the idea of Bella falling in love with a boy as scornful as Edward is at the beginning of the novel. Again, I feel somewhat dirty for defending Bella or her creator, but plenty of girls, and women for that matter, are attracted to boys and men who treat them poorly or seem to have nothing but disdain for them. Linda Holmes is right to point out that these sorts of guys tend to be jerks rather than soulmates, but hey, I don’t know that Edward’s later demeanor really contradicts that trend. He basically treats Bella like a piece of property throughout the rest of the book. Sure, he seems to consider her a particularly precious piece of property, but a piece of property nonetheless.
This all goes part and parcel with the aforementioned fact that we never really understand the attraction between Bella and Edward. I suppose Meyer does half-explain Edward’s attraction. It’s purely chemical, but hey, if you get deep into neurology the same could be said for everyone. Still, Bella is given no reason to like Edward besides the fact that he’s gorgeous and mysterious. Now again, that’s probably more than enough for a teenage girl, but their relationship has zero depth. She’s essentially Edward’s beloved pet and he her benevolent master.
In that same vein, the NPR commentators are right that it’s more than a little creepy when this hundred year old man is telling this sixteen-year-old girl, “I’ll just drag you back.” Again, if you played a drinking game with Twilight where you took a drink every time Edward did something more akin to an abusive lover than a loving boyfriend, you’d be as smashed as Meyer had to have been when she wrote this tripe. Bella just eats it up though.
Overall, when it comes to the entire vampire motif in this book – the metaphor gets tiresome. Bella’s “oh please Edward, bite me bite me bite me” is about as subtle as a herd of elephants. It all comes alongside Edward’s emotional progress which can be summarized roughly as: “I can’t be with you. I love you. I could lose control at any moment. You should stay away from me. No don’t go! I need you! Leave me! I want you! I’m a monster! It’s all so hard. AAAAAANNNNNGGGGGSSSSTTTTT!”
Again, we get it. Hinting at something is not Meyer’s strong suit. If she has a point, she has to whack you over the head with it, which makes it all the more frustrating when she continues to come at you with the same literary 2×4 over and over throughout the book, as though we didn’t understand the first time. I would hope that your average reader has better things to do than see Edward brood or Bella pine over and over and over again.
So what are we left with? An angsty, fairly creepy vampire love interest. A bland at best, bad example at worst, protagonist. A trite love story founded on poor writing. Thankfully, “Twilight” is perfect fodder for the MS3k treatment, but as a novel on its own terms, it fails completely. How this book and its author have managed to have this runaway success is beyond me. If I were attempting to argue against the wisdom of the free market, “Twilight” would be my Exhibit A.