Monday, December 22, 2008

Snapshot Book Review: Twilight Series

Twilight (The Twilight Saga, Book 1) Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
Although they are independent books, the Twilight books are best reviewed as a package deal. Granted, no one would review the Harry Potter books as one complete entity, but that series is both longer and more diverse in each of its “novelesque episodes.” The Twilight books play out one singular storyline: that of Bella and Edward and the fate of their—literally—undying love.

To give a sense of the books in general, let me say this: if I were still twelve years old and desperately seeking a “someday, a boy will swoop into my life and rescue me with his undying love” kind of novel, these books—particularly the first three—would undoubtedly earn five-star ratings. Plus, I have to give Meyers credit: the novels include every form of fantastical escapism—in the way of the vampires’ and the wolves’ beauty, power, and sexuality—that any preadolescent reader with an active, “yearning” imagination would desire. (I can attest to this, because I was such a reader.) Essentially, these novels are exactly like the Christopher Pike and Amelia Atwater-Rhodes books I used to devour back in my prepubescent days. I was addicted to the sexuality, the violence, the grace, and the torment of the characters in Pike’s The Last Vampire series, and I was transfixed by the beauty and longing written into Atwater-Rhodes’ novel In the Forests of the Night, particularly because she wrote it when she was only fifteen. I was fifteen; I wanted to write a best-selling novel.

But back to Twilight. Looking at the series from this perspective, I can understand its appeal. Why this particular series has become so wildly successful, as opposed to Pike’s The Last Vampire Series or some other such thing is probably due to a dozen tiny factors. However, one of the larger ones is that a great portion of Meyers’ readership is composed of the mothers of the girls who became obsessed with these novels. The mothers then also picked up the Twilight epidemic because a) the novels are written by a Mormon mom who intentionally imbued the books with abstinence and anti-abortion messages (which might not even have been particularly obvious if Meyers’ Mormonism hadn’t been so touted by the press), and b) they mimic a genre of book that middle-aged women tend to adore: Harlequin Romances. Then, because these mothers not only approved of but also became obsessed with the novels, they were willing to indulge in and even encouraged their daughters’ infatuation. Thus, the books jumped inside two audiences’ pocketbooks, and linked audiences at that. What better way to get a mother to buy a book’s T-shirt, pencil case, poster, and magnets for her daughter than if she wants these things for herself, too?

As it is, I have sucked down all 800-odd pages of them (each!) within 48 hours of opening the covers. I’ll admit, I do like the feeling of being in junior high school again, racing through the story, and feeling that fast-paced thrill of anguished love. Meanwhile, however, I must acknowledge what I once put up with what I did not notice as a junior high school reader: predictable plot turns, stock characters, and piles of angst-ridden melodrama. These considerably insurmountable hurdles are at the heart of my complaint about the Twilight Series.

I zoomed through the first book, Twilight, in spite of the fact that I never was convinced that Bella would fall in love with Edward (or him with her, even if he was supernatural) so quickly and so completely. I zoomed through the second book also, because I wanted to know what would happen. Was this really going to be a happily-ever-after story, or would the vampiric “darkness” prevail? Then I got to the third book. By that time, I had already read over 1600 pages of “I’m-so-self-sacrificing” Bella and “I’m-so-overprotective-because-I-love-her” Edward. I needed a change. Unfortunately for me (and every other reader reading these books in direct sequence), there was no change. Sure, Meyers tried to introduce a second love interest, in the form of Jacob, but it never really stuck. Bella never really doubted herself, and therefore I, as the reader, never really doubted the outcome: I knew she would end up with Edward. Consequently, I didn’t end up rooting for the happy ending, I ended up rooting for Jacob! (Not quite what Meyers had in mind, I’m sure.) Still, I could barely even root for Jacob, because even he was unbearably predictable, in his violent mood swings and “I’m-coming-back-for-more-because-I-love-you” masochism.

The books’ plots were equally banal. I knew what would happen before Bella, Edward, or any of the characters did, whether Meyers wanted me to or not. It felt like back when I used to read Nancy Drew novels and tried to figure out the mystery before she did. Now, though, I wasn’t even trying; the plots just unfolded themselves with appalling predictability in spite of my attempts to remain ignorant. With this loss of suspense, my desire to continue reading waned. By the end of the third novel, I was so disillusioned by the quality of the writing, I had to take a break. Certainly, I still wanted to find out “what would happen,” because the whole saga was plot-driven, and the ultimate questions hadn’t been answered yet, but I simply could not bear the thought of reading any more “woe is me, I love Edward so much, how can I cause him pain, I am such a bad person, wah wah wah” from Bella. The angst seemed to have grown from sentences in Twilight, to paragraphs in New Moon, to pages in Eclipse. At this rate, I was terrified I’d find chapters of the stuff in Breaking Dawn, and if my patience were stretched that thin, I’d probably go away hating all teen fiction ever written.

After my two-book “break” (I read novels by Saramago and Perez-Reverte to cleanse my mind), I read Breaking Dawn with considerably less irritation than I might have, had I gone straight into it after reading Eclipse. Looking at the series as a whole, I think that the first and fourth books (Twilight and Breaking Dawn, respectively) were the most unique and, therefore, the most interesting. New Moon and Eclipse could probably have been condensed and combined into one novel, without much—if any—story being lost. Still though, my other criticisms stand: the plot was predictable, and the characters were stereotypical, even in the ways Meyers tried to make them dynamic. It irritated me in the last book how all of the characters could be so oblivious and slow in their realizations and problem-solving skills. It’s one thing to realize something before a character does, but it’s another thing to feel as though characters who are supposed to be very intelligent and cunning are stupider than the average reader.

So there is no real final word on these books. They’re easy reads, and very addictive in that pop-mystery/romance-novel way, particularly for the teen/pre-teen female population (and their mothers). The writing is not very “literary,” nor is it meant to be, but this should be considered when incorporating oneself into an audience of readers whose average age range and literary expectations may be lower than your own.*

From reading a spot-on, side-splitting review by Jayne Bielak, I discovered that the Twilight books were written on an approximately fourth-grade reading level. This leads me to believe that perhaps the books were targeted at the reading level of the average American. If so, be content with considering yourself above average. Leave me to do the English-major-y griping and groaning.

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