written by stephanie meyer
2 out of 5 sparkle flashes from a vampire's cheek
Reviews are ostensibly some kind of conduit from critic to average public member, a guideline tethered to the balloon of commerce as it floats from project to project, saying this is good, this is bad, this is why. Reviewing something like twilight, a pillar of teenage romance and probably shoved so deep into the popular collective consciousness that you’d need an army of pickaxe-d psychiatrists to dig it out, is maybe pointless. But stephanie meyer’s book was published in 2007, and our appetite for helpless heroines has shifted.
Any creative product, like a book/movie/painting/sculpture/dance, has a subjective flavor that depends on both creator and viewer. Culture gives context, and we see a painting as not just a block of color but also a reflection of the artist’s time and place. Clever internet selfiemongers summed this up long ago with captions like ‘art imitating life imitating art imitating life’ on photos of people posing in mirrors while in the background their roommate plays a video game where they go to work then home then sleep then work again. But it’s 2018 now and even pointing out such multiple meta layers is cliché so I won’t bother. Art and life are a hall of mirrors where each reflection gives the next one meaning.
Certain rare books rise above such messy dynamics and acquire adjectives like ‘timeless’ (á la ‘fitzgerald’s gatsby is timeless, a real slice of the american dream’). Twilight is not one of these.
Vacuum away the context for a second and twilight is, objectively, pretty good. Meyer’s writing is plain and direct, a swiss train for efficiently conveying bella’s crummy inner life. The first hundred pages or so are bound together by the griping of a teenage girl whose selfimposed exile to overcast forks is working out precisely as expected. This is annoying, but not necessarily inaccurate. It’s an established fact that teenagers are whiny (genesis 12:6, I believe) so bella feels convincing (maybe not to actual teenagers reading the book, but since when does anyone care what teenagers think?). The characters around her pass by in extended, adolescent dialogues that feel, again, annoying but perfectly believable. Jacob and billy black are a welcome distraction from the drama of boys infatuated with bella, girl rivalries involving bella, and the mysterious cullen family who don’t pay much attention to bella. Not to go all team jacob, but he feels like the only interesting person in the entire book because he has something approaching a rounded personality. He shows up only very early and very late, charming both times, and the long middle feels his absence.
When she turns her attention away from teenage angst, meyer has a gift for description. Forks isn’t derry, maine, but still its mood reflects and reinforces the story as gloomy skies and sleet give way to sunlit meadows populated by sparkly vampires. On tide pools: the bouquets of brilliant anemones undulated ceaselessly in the invisible current, twisted shells scurried about the edges, obscuring the crabs within them, starfish stuck motionless to the rocks and each other, while one small black eel with white racing stripes wove through bright green weeds, waiting for the sea to return. Not bad at all.
The fundamental problem with twilight is that bella’s defining trait is passivity. Things happen to her, she doesn’t cause things to happen. There’s barely a willful decision to be found. The three largest plot points (moving to forks, falling in love with edward, walking to the dance studio to get killed by james) all share the same tone of inevitability. Bella is consistently relieved when choice is stripped away and she can simply follow the path of least resistance.
Romance novel formula relies on this to really get the most out of male characters, making them more powerful, more mysterious, more alluring. Compared to clumsy, helpless bella, edward becomes all the more godlike---and his singular interest in her all the more pivotal. Jacob, though friendly and charismatic, only really enters the franchise when he grows into his werewolf heritage and gains the same sort of physical and supernatural power edward enjoys.
The point I’m about to make has been growing louder and more obvious since before the women’s rights movement, but it seems that now, postweinstein, we’re especially sensitive to the idea that we’ve treated civil rights as a zerosum game, where every right granted to man is one taken from woman. Diminishing women to make men stronger and more capable is much less accepted now than eleven years ago, at twilight’s publishing date. Simply, twilight feels less romantic and more exploitative. Scenes of edward watching bella sleep, taking her somnambulant talk as confirmation she loves him, come across as embarrassingly tonedeaf. Odes to his physical strength as he holds bella lapside while she struggles to stand to meet his adoptive undead parents have lost whatever tenderness they had in the intervening decade. Much of edward’s appeal lies in his dangerous nature, his lethality to bella and his constant struggle to resist opening her up to get at her juicy internals (if meyer can stretch a description thin, so can I). But seen from here in the future, he looks like less a stalking predator and more just a stalker.
Twilight is a story of undying, allconsuming love. But, adolescent or not, that love is an insult to both bella and edward. Emotionally, it stunts them. They build into each other, rather than out from the relationship. They become more myopic, more constrained. Love distances bella from her family, her friends, and her one other potential partner. Characterizing twilight as typical teenage infatuation is precisely the issue. We shouldn’t rely on worn, poisonous archetypes like bella and edward to show us what ‘typical’ looks like. Maybe twilight was once a reflection of us, but no longer, I hope.