Experiments in Reading: Twilight

Since the publication and explosive fame of the Twilight series, I have had several of my friends urge me to read the books.  One friend even swore that the romance between Bella and Edward outdoes anything she’s ever read, including all of Austen’s painfully awesome heroines and Shakespeare’s great tragic loves.  Shocking as that proclamation was, I’m in grad school for English – that means I have kind of a long reading list already.  And so I put off reading the book until now.  I now face several months of twiddling thumbs during which I cannot commute to school before Julia comes, so this seemed like the best opportunity I had to read at least the first book in the series.  I’ve been derisive of the popularity of the books for years; I mean, they are written for young adults, and yet I have perfectly logical adult friends just raving about them.  Thus this experiment was born:  I will read Twilight with an open mind, and only then will I make an ethically sound judgment.

I started the book on December 2nd and finished it this morning, five days later.  Regrettably, I didn’t rush through the book, compelled by a burning knowledge to find out more about the romance or the vampirism or Bella’s school days.  Rather, I was able to finish it in five days of bedtime-only reading because the writing allows for the mindless kind of information processing that I would expect from a children’s book.  There is no subtext; the characters speak out exactly what they are feeling, every minute detail that could possibly be important to the text, so that the reader has only those same questions that the characters speak and then answer.  I think the book’s length is a direct result of Meyer’s need to spell out every single possibility of the work, no matter if those details are engaging.  Also, she never uses the word “aggravate” correctly, which just aggravates my irritation.

But wait, Laura, you’re being unfair!  This series is, of course, written for young adults, and so the writing must be made available for that general audience.  I can give that much.  Ideas should be clear, and perhaps that abolishes some chance of subtext.  However, I would still not recommend this book to the teenagers I know because of the off-kilter gender dynamics depicted in the book.  The two main characters, along with the non-vampire adults represented, subscribe to the worst of stereotypes our culture has to offer.  Bella is completely helpless, perpetually in need of saving, and completely in awe and fear of Edward’s strengths. Bella’s parents are even more helpless than she is; Bella is consistently described as taking care of her mother, and we see Bella preparing dinner and cleaning up night after night for a father that is only home to watch sports games and sleep.   Edward, in contrast, owns a physical perfection that both frightens and awes Bella.  The lengths to which Meyer shows Edward caring for Bella are extreme.  Over and over he laughs at her incredulity at his superhuman powers, carries her around after she faints, describes her fragility to her, and reminds her that he could kill her so easily (but killing him would be exponentially more difficult, of course).  It’s a wonder, really, that anyone could love a girl so feeble or a boy so egotistical.

Further, that love between the two is problematic for me, primarily because it has no realistic basis.  After a (long) while of exposition detailing how the two can’t keep their eyes off each other, how Bella’s uninterested in the charms of the three or four other boys who try to talk to her, their love truly springs up out of nowhere.  Their courtship lasts about a day; seriously, they go from tentative friends to declaring an undying love for one another in one single day.  Maybe the star-crossed concept would be more applicable if the writing leading up to the love declaration was more fraught with the realities of why they couldn’t be in love.  As it is, readers are just supposed to accept that this love happened and focus more on the after-effects.  This is difficult for me to swallow, though, given that the entire series centers on this love – why not spend a little more time to make it deeper, more complex?

While the love is completely unbelievable, it is believable that so many readers would want to believe that someone, anyone, could feel that kind of love, but it’s just not real.  At best, that would be lust, especially since Bella seems to have no control over her emotions while Edward exhibits the utmost restraint in not making out or sucking out her blood (pointing back to that old stereotype of women as completely indulgent emotionally, while men are run by the logical mind…you know the one).  Absolutely victimized, bound by a love that has no realistic grounding, Bella embodies a modern-day version of a fairy tale princess that leaves a horrible aftertaste in my mouth.  While I can understand, and even champion, light reading that is just for entertainment, for me the problems and flat prose of the book were so annoying that I derived zero pleasure from the experience.  I think I’ll just stick to my Jennifer Weiner books when I want some fun reading that isn’t completely devoid of literary skill or complex thought.

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