Tuesday, February 10, 2009

February Book Review: Twilight

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February is here and that means it's time for a new book review. This month I am taking a look at Twilight, the bestselling teen vampire novel by Stephenie Meyer. There will be some spoilers in this review, so if you plan to read this book in the future, stay away.

Let me open this review by saying that this book is tremendously popular among the students I substitute for. It doesn't matter whether I'm subbing middle school or high school, I'll see at least five kids walking around with one of the Twilight saga books under their arms. My whole reason for reading it was to see what all the fuss was about. I knew it would be juvenile, because the target audience is juvenile. I expected it to be cheesy because the previews for the recent movie adaptation were beyond cheesy themselves. What I didn't expect was how incredibly bad it was.

The story centers around Isabella Swan (Bella), a seventeen year old girl who relocates from her comfy home in Phoenix, Arizona to Forks, a small town in Washington state, to live with her father. At her new small town high school, she meets the mysterious Edward Cullen and falls instantly in love with him. She soon finds out that he is a vampire, but she doesn't care. No one can stop their love! Edward and his family feed on animals rather than humans, so she's safe as long as Edward can resist her alluring scent. As the novel progresses, Bella finds herself in danger when a new coven of vamps come to town. From this point on the story descends into nonsensical plot twists until Edward finally rescues her and saves the day. Then they go to the prom. Not even kidding.

This book is a lot like The Da Vinci Code to me. It's a bad book, and you know it's a bad book as you're reading it, but you can't put the damn thing down until you've finished it. I read the whole thing in only five days. The book is very fast paced, which makes the reading go by fast too. That doesn't mean that the reading is particularly enjoyable, mind you. I don't see how anyone above the sixth grade could be tricked into truly liking this series, but it's happened. Twilight purports itself to be a children's book, a romance novel and a suspenseful thriller and it totally fails on all three fronts.

While this novel is undoubtedly written for children. It fails at being a great children's book. If we look at some of the truly great works of adolescent fantasy literature such as the Harry Potter series or the Narnia books, we can find common threads running through them. They value bravery, intelligence and morals. The characters learn a lesson or stand up for what's right through the story. The plot lines are exciting and action packed. These are the kinds of things kids should be reading about. Standing in counterpoint to these ideas is Twilight, with its weak storyline and pathetic main character.

Bella is perhaps the most helpless literary character I've ever encountered. Her personality is unpleasant to say the least. She is cowardly, has no self confidence, is intensely negative and always sarcastic. Physically, she is clumsy to the point of being disabled, pale and sickly looking, prone to fits of fainting and literally needs to be carried through many parts of the book. Aside from her naturally weak traits, she is also the victim of a ridiculous level of bad luck. She can't go anywhere without almost dying. This, of course, is so that Edward can repeatedly rescue her to the delight of middle school fangirls everywhere.

The damsel in distress routine is interesting to a point, but it gets tiring real fast. Take this quote, for example. It takes place just after Edward tells Bella they are going on a five mile hike through the woods:

"Five miles. I didn't answer, so that he wouldn't hear my voice crack in panic. Five miles of trecherous roots and loose stones, trying to twist my ankles or otherwise incapacitate me. This was going to be humiliating."

Keep in mind this is Bella's reaction to the thought of walking around. Come on girl! Not everything has to conquer you!

What is perhaps, the most unforgivable offense of the novel is that Bella doesn't change at all by the end of it. She is still a wimp. She still needs to be rescued from everything. She is even hampered by a broken leg in the closing pages of the book so she still needs to be literally carried around. So much for character growth, huh? Returning to the classic children's novels I mentioned, Twilight just doesn't fit the pattern. There is no real bravery, no standing up for what's right, and no lessons to be learned. There is only Edward, Bella and their unbalanced love affair where Edward is good at everything and Bella is good at nothing (not even walking).

Meyer is so desperate to create reasons for Edward and Bella to touch that she doens't pay much attention to what that says to the children she is reaching out to with her writing. Bella is a horrible role model for young girls. I would not want my daughters reading a book like this. This is 2009. Women these days have an equal part in relationships. We value our intelligence and trust our instincts. We do things for ourselves and believe in our abilities. There is nothing women can't do now. We do NOT need a man to define us, but Bella does. Bella spends the entire novel mooning over Edward and doubting herself.

Yes, I understand that Edward is a vampire and is somewhat super-human. Bella should have been given some abilities that could compete with the strength of his character. Instead, she is continually allowed to pale in comparison. Meyer allows her to disappear in his shadow. It is this message that women are weak and need to be rescued that makes Twilight fail as a children's book.

The second thing Twlight tries to be is a romance, and it fails spectacularly at this as well. I have read a lot of romance novels in my day, so I know the template they usually follow. The problem with Edward and Bella's love affair is that it is acknowledged too soon. A teen romance novel obviously can't have sex in it. That means that the climax the story should build towards is the first kiss of the couple. Edward and Bella kiss too soon. They become boyfriend and girlfriend too soon.

All of the romantic anticipation is spent halfway through the novel when their first kiss occurs. There are no more delicious, "Will they or won't they?" moments. After they come together and are intimate for the first time, the rest of Edward's romantic gestures become cheesy and played out. Oh, great, he's kissing her neck again. Not like we haven't read that before.

Another issue I found with their romance is the feelings raised by this quote, spoken by Edward after some nighttime canoodling with Bella:

"I'm just pleasantly surprised," he clarified, "In the last hundred years or so," his voice was teasing, "I never imagined anything like this. I didn't believe I would ever find someone I wanted to be with . . . in another way that my brothers and sisters. And then to find, even though it's all new to me, that I'm good at it . . . at being with you . . ."
The first issue here is that a hundred year old man is seducing a seventeen year old girl. I can overlook that to a point, it's kind of necessary as Edward is eternally a teen and all. The real issue I had was the fact that Edward is a virgin.

I'm sorry, but from what I know of vampires, the words "sexy," "vampire," and "virgin" don't even come close to belonging in the same sentence. Vampires are supposed to be experienced and irresistible, not inexperienced and unsure of their sexual prowess. I would rather have had Edward be a widower six times over than a virgin. At least he would have cut a sympathetic figure to the reader in that case.

I'm assuming that Edward's virginity is Meyer's attempt to make him less creepy to her readers. A hundred year old virgin is probably more acceptable to her reader's mothers than a hundred year old straight up pimp. It somehow makes Edward less of a man though. I don't want to fantasize about someone who is probably inept in bed, but maybe that's just personal to me. I'd much rather have a hero who knew how to get my blood boiling.

Aside from those specific problems, Edward and Bella's romantic interludes are marked by cheesy and horrific writing. I wanted to vomit repeatedly while reading lines like this:

"Hesitantly, always afraid, even now, that he would disappear like a mirage, too beautiful to be real . . . hesitantly, I reached out one finger and stroked the back of his shimmering hand, where it lay within my reach. I marveled at the perfect texture, satin smooth, cool as stone."


*Barf*

The last thing Twilight fails at being is a suspense thriller. About three quarters of the way through the book, the storyline abruptly shifts from straight romance to romance/thriller. The shift to the climax of the story is blatantly obvious, and not done smoothly. As I was reading this section, I literally thought, "Oh, I guess this is where the end of the story starts," and that's never good.

It seems like Meyer ran out of coherent ideas for how to finish off the story, as the plot twists become improbable and confusing. Locations jump from Forks to Phoenix to Forks again with little to tie everything together. Edward's family figures majorly into the final conflict, which is weird, since we never got to know them all that well before this. They seem unnecessary and out of place playing such major parts in the story right at the end. The whole conclusion seems rushed and surreal and was not enjoyable to read.

Of course, the novel ends with Bella being grievously injured. She tried to do something on her own without Edward, so of course she ends up in the hospital. Luckily for us, she recovers enough of her strength to go to her prom. The only surprise in the story is that it doesn't end with her being elected prom queen. I honestly thought that's where all this was going.

As the novel failed on all three genres it tried to fit into, I'm giving this book just 1 prom ticket out of 5. Don't waste your time on this anti-feminist tripe.

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