What the Kindle Daily Deal hath wrought: A couple of weeks ago, I saw the first in Stephenie Meyer’s teenage-vampire YA series, Twilight, online for $1.99. I stared at the screen for a couple of minutes, weighing the reality of several of my smart and serious friends who sheepishly admitted they couldn’t put the novels down against the equally valid recognition that I have a limited number of hours on this Earth and there had to be better ways to spend them than reading four (because of course I’d have to read all four) dumb books about vampires. What ultimately reeled me in, though, was a simple desire to see what all the fuss was about. (After all, I’d read and liked The Hunger Games trilogy; maybe I’d like these as well, despite Meyer’s reputation for abstinence-only agenda-pushing. After all, when the sex in question is between a fragile human and a vampire who fears killing his true love, maybe the message wasn’t as nefarious as I’d been led to believe by the liberal media that can’t wait to destroy good Christians and everything they’ve ever stood for.)
Verdict? I did enjoy the series (though the Twilight books make The Hunger Games look like War and Peace). And yes, the book certainly promotes the kind of quote-family-values-unquote that allows Meyer to justify the central couple getting married in their late teens with only the most feeble of rationales (the vampire inexplicably demands marriage as a condition for turning his human girlfriend into one of his own. And then they end up having the supposedly dangerous sex while she’s still human anyway.)
The first book is by far the weakest of the four. Meyer hits her stride in the third installment, Eclipse, but in Twilight it’s amateur hour. She cedes time and deference to characters who end up being almost wholly unimportant; her prose is tepid at best and laughable at worst; she has an awful sense of pacing (which in fact persists throughout the entire series); she neglects peripheral details that she could and should have run with, enlivening the story in the process. In short, Twilight one of the only books in human history where the movie version is much more enjoyable.
Everyone knows by now that Meyer was a homemaker in Arizona when the inspiration for Twilight came to her in a dream; she wrote the first book in just a few months, and it shows. Here’s an example of Meyer’s gift for language: “Angela and Ben were the next to claim us, followed by Angela’s parents and then Mike and Jessica—who were, to my surprise, holding hands. I hadn’t heard that they were together again. That was nice.” (This is from the final installment, Breaking Dawn, at which point you’d think she’d have picked up a few stylistic tips.) To be fair, nobody’s ever defended Twilight on literary merits, and the fact remains that Meyer’s vampire saga has sold more than 116 million copies worldwide; if anyone could do it, everyone would do it. In other words, she’s got what the French call a certain I-don’t-know-what: There’s something about the Twilight series that has mesmerized fans, and those fans can’t all be teenage girls. So what accounts for the juggernaut?
1.) The books are compulsively readable. This is likely because they’re very easy to read. The vocabulary is basic, the story straightforward, the plot devices obvious. And yet you really do want to see what happens next.
2.) The aforementioned point is probably best attributed to the fact that Meyer has created two exceedingly appealing male characters (though one, of course, is much more appealing than the other, depending on whom you’re talking to and which Team she’s on). For those as out of the loop as I was, those characters are Edward Cullen, the vampire, and Jacob Black, the werewolf, both of whom the protagonist, Bella Swan, meets when she moves from Phoenix to Forks, Washington to live with her father after her mother remarries. Neither Edward nor Jacob are actually dangerous, of course—Edward is a member of a “vegetarian” vampire clan, led by the pious and peaceful Carlisle Cullen, that abstains from human blood in favor of animals’, albeit with great difficulty. And for Jacob’s wolf pack, saving humans from vampires is its sole reason for being. Both men are desperately and selflessly in love with Bella, whom I found mopey and annoying, and whose appeal is explained only by the fact that you’re picturing Kristen Stewart the entire time. Edward thirsts for Bella’s blood, but his pure adoration for her helps him overcome his baser instincts; there’s an obvious metaphor if there ever were one.
In the first book, Jacob serves mainly as a catalyst for Bella to realize the handsome stranger she’s so taken with is actually a vampire, but in the second novel, New Moon, he becomes Bella’s best friend and confidante as she nurses a broken heart. Needless to say, he falls in love with her, and then becomes a werewolf, further complicating matters. It sounds unbearably silly, but the fact is, there’s something about both Jacob and Edward that moves you, against all your better judgment. And it’s probably the same thing that gets Harlequin romance novels flying off the shelves: Every girl (every woman, even) alive yearns for the kind of wish fulfillment that Twilight epitomizes. Bella’s plied by two mysterious and devoted men—who happen to look like Taylor Lautner and Robert Pattinson—at her beck and call, ready to protect her from anything and anyone that dares threaten her. She faces absolutely no competition for either Edward’s or Jacob’s affections throughout the entire series. Their worlds revolve around Bella, and both are willing to forsake their families, their sanities and even their lives to appease her. In spite of all the vampires and werewolves, this may be the most fantastical aspect of the entire series, and it’s no wonder girls eat it up. And the best part is, as Bella proves, you don’t even have to be all that interesting to merit this kind of obsession.
3.) Meyer’s themes are compelling, even if William Shakespeare did get there first. Forbidden love. Unrequited love. The absence of love. Recovering from lost love. Hate. Familial loyalty. Betrayal. Sacrifice. Meyer’s scattered epigraphs from “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Merchant of Venice” and Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice” aren’t there for nothing, after all.
There’s no question that Twilight books are guilty pleasures—emphasis on pleasures, though, because they usually were. It’s nice to finally “get” what everybody’s been talking about. Also, now I can comfortably position myself in Team Jacob’s corner armed with the requisite narrative defenses such a choice demands.