The Thing About Twilight
By Laura Schiller
I've never come across a book that irritated, aggravated and fascinated me as much as Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series. I've raved and ranted endlessly to my mother over coffee, until the very mention of the books makes her roll her eyes. I've spent entire days on top of my bed, reading them like there was no tomorrow. I banished Twilight to the back of my closet, almost gave it away, but then put it on the shelf again – and lo and behold, it has a crack in the spine from all my reading. I did give away Breaking Dawn out of sheer outrage over Jacob's imprinting on Renesmee – but I regretted it afterward. Still, I'm not about to spend twenty bucks for the second time.
The question is, why? Usually, when I dislike a book, I get rid of it without a second thought. I don't go back to it again and again, watch the movie and contradict my own opinions. Just what is it about Twilight that causes this strange love/hate relationship?
Firstly, I will describe the 'hate' factor: the many things about these books I find offensive or just plain annoying. For one thing, they're everywhere – you can't set foot in a bookstore without seeing those haunting red-on-black covers and the paper-white faces of Kristen Stewart and Rob Pattinson. You can't attend high school without hearing some silly teenage girls giggling about Edward. Don't even get me started about Twilight fans – most of them are even less reasonable than I am, and they honestly think Edward Cullen is the perfect man. I disagree – here's why.
The man is an arrogant, controlling know-it-all who treats Bella like a child. This is perhaps understandable given the fact that he's around eighty years older, but it's still annoying. He brings her to the prom when he knows perfectly well she hates that sort of thing; he disables her car to prevent her seeing Jacob; he goes to her house and watches her sleep before they even start dating. That is just wrong – and the worst part is, bella doesn't even mind. One look at those vaunted golden eyes and she melts into a puddle.
Also, personally I think the way those two feel about each other goes beyond what is healthy; witness New Moon. This morbid depression that causes Bella to turn into a zombie, and to put herself in danger just to hallucinate Edward's voice (!) is deeply disturbing and barely readable. So her boyfriend left her, her friends moved away – yes, of course it's painful, but no reason to grow catatonic and believe life is not worth living. She has parents who love her, friends who support her, and especially sweet, funny, sunny Jacob Black who treats her as an equal and whom she can hug without freezing. To this day, I'm still annoyed that she didn't end up with Jacob.
And the subject of Jacob leads me to another major grievance: imprinting. As I write this, I'm seriously tempted to snarl out loud.
When I fall in love, it's a choice – and I assume that for other people it's the same. It might make you feel romantic to believe you're being swept away by those feelings against your will, but really – there's always that moment when you say to yourself, That's it. He/She is really attractive, now what am I going to do about it? You can fight it, deny it, or you can let it take over and face the consequences. The werewolves have no choice, and that's horribly unfair.
Example: Sam and Leah were in love, but when he imprinted on Emily, he broke her heart. And when Emily refused him, out of loyalty to her cousin Leah, he lost control over his werewolf transformation and attacked her, leaving her disfigured. (This is another instance where, if it weren't for the excuse the Twilight men have of being werewolves and vampires, their behavior would be classical abuse – another thing that bothers me.) And yes, her heart was won over eventually by his intense remorse, but Leah was still left out in the cold – all because of imprinting. And as for Jacob and Quil, that's just creepy – imprinting on a baby and a two-year-old, respectively. Of course they don't love the children 'in that way' yet – but still, looking at a baby or toddler in the understanding that you'll marry them one day has something unsettling about it. How is Renesmee supposed to have a healthy relationship with a man a generation older who used to love her mother? Sigmund Freud would have had a field day – come to think of it, he would with this entire series.
But what annoys me the most about Twilight, if I had to decide, is the series' attitude about death and aging. These books make it sound, not like a natural part of life, but a horrible fate to be avoided, even at the cost of becoming a bloodsucking terror. If Edward and Bella's love is supposedly so all-powerful, why couldn't it stand her growing old and passing away as a human being is supposed to?
Now I admit I'm hardly an expert on death; the only close acquaintance who ever died on me was my cat. But if I had to choose between being an ordinary mortal and being undead, I hope I'd choose the former – though it would be difficult to refuse beauty and special superpowers. But becoming a bloodsucking terror who endangers her own mother and father would be too high a price to pay – not to mention being stuck in the same mindframe for centuries. The ability to change and grow is one of the best things about being human; it's what led Bella to recovery when Edward left her. If he hadn't made that melodramatic suicide attempt with the Volturi, I really think she could have attained some measure of happiness without him – there are much worse things than falling in love with your best friend, having children and growing old together. It's not as spectacular, maybe, but no less beautiful.
Now, having thoroughly ground these books into the dust, I will proceed to tell you why I love them anyway, and why I would buy them all if I weren't embarrassed by appearing as a turncoat in front of my mother. For one thing, they make a great conversation starter – and any time I don't know what to say to one of my peers, all I have to do is ask if she's read Twilight. And for another, Ms. Meyer is simply a darn good writer.
Sometimes when I read, I feel like I am Bella. Yes, I know that every girl who reads Twilight feels the same way – that's the magic of it. Ms. Meyer's heroine is someone whom all readers, different and unique as we are, identify with. The first-person narration might have something to do with it, as is the fact that she describes herself as average. Some critics have referred to Bella as a 'Mary Sue' – which, as I understand it, means an unappealing, one-dimensional heroine created by an incompetent amateur author, who tries too hard to make her likeable and fails. While it is true that Ms. Meyer was a beginner when she wrote Twilight, I do not agree that Bella is a so-called Mary Sue.
She describes herself as pale, thin, clumsy and average – which makes these critics unable to understand what Edward sees in her. They forget that Bella is a teenage girl, and therefore very insecure. Her good qualities are less obvious because she doesn't seem to know them – Edward, however, recognizes her for the strong, determined, unselfish, caring girl she is. The second thing that attracts him to her, right after her scent, is her character: while making small talk to prove he can resist the smell, he finds out why she came to Forks – to make room for her mother's boyfriend. It is a sacrifice for Bella, who always hated Forks, but having looked after her eccentric mother all her life, she is used to thinking of others before herself. It's her greatest flaw – if she valued herself more, she would not have collapsed like a pricked balloon when Edward left. But it's also her greatest strength, symbolized by her vampire gift in Breaking Dawn: the ability to protect her loved ones from other vampires' powers.
There is a certain satisfaction in reading about a girl who's neither stunningly beautiful nor brilliantly talented, but finds love anyway. It gives us all hope.
As to Edward, while his aforementioned flaws still drive me up the wall every time I read about him, the fact that he has them makes him almost as accessible as Bella: she may call him perfect, but if he really were, he'd be impossible to live with. I admit I have a similar weakness as Bella where he is concerned. It's the lonely monster appeal: he's like the Phantom of the Opera, only better looking. Because he truly loves Bella and tries to do what is right, he sparks sympathy and forgiveness in spite of all his mistakes. As a reader, it's easy to forgive characters for their weaknesses; it's an act of charity that doesn't cost anything and makes us feel better.
As for Jacob, I feel horribly sorry for him and identify with him almost as much as Bella. He doesn't get the girl – we all know how that feels – and when he does, he knows he'll have to wait years until they can be together. Meanwhile, think of having the girl you once loved become your mother-in-law!
Another thing I like about Twilight is the vivid, passionate writing style, which can be over-the-top sometimes (seriously, how many synonyms for 'perfect' are there?) but never fails to have an impact: Edward's velvet voice and topaz eyes, the gruesome hole in Bella's heart, the creosote bushes of Arizona and the nightmare/fairytale forest of Forks. I like Edward and Bella's banter, especially in the first book, and I like the way her complicated feelings about Edward are described. You're always a little afraid of the one you love because they might reject you or hurt you; in Edward's case, he could do far worse, but that tension between them does reflect the anxiety of first love.
Edward and Bella's relationship, idolized by some as true love and denounced by others as sexist, is actually just a highly dramatized depiction of a real relationship: imperfect and complicated, but holding steady due to compromises, open communication, tolerance and, of course, love. Edward and Bella have their issues – his thirst for her blood; his overprotectiveness; their unequal strength and appearance; cultural differences on the subject of marriage – so they argue just about all the time. But during those arguments, they get to see and appreciate the other's point of view. This is how Bella persuades Edward to let her visit the werewolves, for instance, and how he convinces her to wait until marriage before making love. And this is how their relationship works – by listening and showing respect for each other.
Their relationship is somewhat unequal due to his strength, speed and beauty; she constantly worries that a man like him couldn't possibly love a girl like her. Also, he keeps on saving her life in spectacular ways – pushing an incoming car out of the way, frightening off a bunch of street thugs etc., putting Bella in the position of a 'damsel in distress'. But then again, in New Moon it's her turn to save his life, humanity and all, by showing up just before he commits suicide. And in Breaking Dawn, her transformation into a vampire just after giving birth (a horrific but rather appropriate coming-of-age) makes her almost indestructible and no longer in need of anyone's protection.
Bella is aware, throughout the books, of what she sees as her human fallibility; this is exactly why she wants to transform. As she puts it: 'I can't be Lois Lane all the time. I want to be Superman too.' This is why I disagree that the books are sexist – Bella does marry young and without a career, but she chooses to do so, just as she chooses to become a vampire in order to be physically and intellectually equal to Edward. I do not have to agree with that choice in order to respect Bella's determination in making it.
Finally, looking back at both the love and hate sections, I conclude that basically, they're about the same thing. The thing about Twilight that makes me so angry is the same thing that makes it so good: the characters live. I wish I knew how Ms. Meyer does it. Bella, Edward and Jacob are so real and lovable to me that I hate to see them unhappy, in danger or doing what I believe is wrong.
It's a story that grabs readers by the throat, because the motivations that drive the characters are – fangs, fur and sparkles aside – just like ours: we're all uncomfortable in our own skin sometimes, especially growing up. We all want to make the best choices, even when the right thing to do is the hardest. We're all afraid of dying and afraid of losing someone close to us. And most of all, we want to love and be loved – in spite of our flaws, or even because of them.
This is why I'll probably never give up on Twilight. It drives my parents crazy, and I still think the Harry Potter books are better, but there you are. They're the most annoying, over-the-top and utterly addictive books I've ever read.