All right. I’ve tried to avoid gushing over Twilight. I realize (strange as it seems to me) that not everyone on the planet is Twilight-obsessed or musing over how quickly they’ve gone from thinking RPattz was a horrible choice for Edward to seriously considering taking up a new career as an RPattz stalker. So I’ve tried. But…
Today, though, in honor of the movie’s opening (no, I did not go to the midnight showing; I’m obsessed, not completely self-destructive, though it was a very close thing), I’m indulging my addiction. So feel free to skim, or skip entirely.
I thought I’d at least strive for sanity, though, so what I’m actually going to do is attempt to answer the question I keep getting asked by non-TwiHards: What exactly is it that is so darned great about this book?!?
I don’t read romance novels. I also don’t read vampire novels. I had my fling with Anne Rice in the 90s, but even then I was all about the Mayfair Witches and Lestat never really did it for me. Blood ooks me out and despite my adoration of black (I mean, it goes with everything!) I am not remotely emo, and vampire novels usually are. And I don’t, often, read young adult novels. So, Twilight’s 0-for-3 right out of the dugout. Right?
Wrong. Yeah, I resisted horribly on all the above counts, but ED eventually wore me down and I caved in. And was hooked.
What hooked me? This line: “It would be more…prudent for you not to be my friend. But I’m tired of trying to stay away from you, Bella.”
While I normally avoid melodramatic overly-intense romantic nonsense, I have to say there is something about Edward Cullen (as brought to life by Stephenie Meyer’s shocking talent) that just sings to me the way Bella’s blood sings to him. Through Bella Swan’s eyes, I was taken back to those high-school days when love was the Holy Grail and every halfway-sentient teenage boy was a potential White Knight, waiting to save me from a lifetime of dull mediocrity. Every glance, every touch, every word casually spoken to a friend was analyzed, dissected and critiqued, pulled apart into its component bits to determine if this was It…if he was The One. (Of course, he was never The One. He was always just a Teenage Boy, and therefore usually A Jerk.)
But that’s where Twilight hits it out of the park, to continue our baseball analogy. Because Edward Cullen is Not Just A Teenage Boy. Edward Cullen is poised…confident…assured…graceful…articulate to the point of eloquence…intelligent…amusing…chivalrous. Oh, yes, and inhumanly beautiful. (You know, that really is sort of an afterthought.) He’s the perfect guy. Yeah, he’s sort of A Jerk at first – but honestly, that can be excused, because he was only being A Jerk to avoid ripping Bella’s throat out in his all-consuming lust for her blood – which, did I mention, sings to him? Sings. Wow. I mean…I have to say, some inhumanly beautiful guy tells me my blood sings to him – yeah, I’m probably baring my throat so he can rip it out right there. Who talks like that?
No one. So does that make the book melodramatic, ridiculous and puerile? Surprisingly, no. It makes perfect sense to us – it’s the way the world should go. Because we’re seeing this through the eyes of a 17-year-old girl – but no ordinary 17-year-old girl. Bella Swan is adult for her years. Sure, she’s got moments of complete teenage idiocy, but then she is a teenager so that’s to be expected. What surprises is the fact that she has many more moments of lucidity, clarity and rationality that frankly, I haven’t witnessed in a lot of teenage girls lately. (Or adults, for that matter.) She doesn’t giggle. She doesn’t gossip. She doesn’t change clothes fifteen times in the morning to find that perfect outfit to catch Edward’s eye. She doesn’t bat her eyes or sigh or talk in a Valley-Girl lilt. She drives a battered, beat-up 50’s Chevy pickup which she adores. She wears chunky, hideous sweaters and sweatshirts, and pajamas with holes in them, and she never wears makeup. (Despite the many reviews of the movie which state that Bella is a “little emo” and “wears too much black eyeliner”. Maybe in the movie, I dunno. Not in the book.) She does her homework, and she reads Austen and Shakespeare for fun, though she hates Calculus. (God, we have so much in common!) She makes dinner for her Dad every night. She worries about her flighty, scatterbrained mom, whom she’s mothered for most of her own life. She does the grocery shopping. And she doubts herself, thinking there’s no way someone as beautiful as Edward Cullen could possibly be interested in her. But she doesn’t hate herself. She doesn’t worry about her hips being too chunky or her chest too flat – she just thinks she’s too ordinary.
Bella is an old soul. She’s mature. She’s no-nonsense. She’s ethical. She’s selfless. She puts everyone else in the world ahead of herself, to the point of physical danger, and doesn’t understand why anyone would think it should be any other way. She keeps Edward’s secret, once she figures it out, not because she’s afraid of him or because she’s in love with him, but simply because it’s his secret. Because it’s the right thing to do. And again, she is surprised that he would think it would be any other way. And she decides it doesn’t matter what he is. She loves him, regardless. At 17, she’s grasped the concept of deciding whether something is a deal-breaker, and if it’s not, learning to accept it and love the person regardless. Sure, it causes her moments of stress and confusion, but she does it anyway.
In short? She’s us. Whether we are 17, 25, 40, or 60…she’s us. Whether we are married, single, divorced, widowed…she’s us. As we are, and as we’d like to be. Somehow, Stephenie Meyer has found some way to make this character real and likeable, yet still malleable enough that we can fill in the blanks with our own thoughts, feelings and desires. And then she takes it a step further, and makes Bella us – only a little bit better. (But a bit self-destructive sometimes, and that does worry me a bit. But it’s a great conversation starting-point with my daughters, about what might be better ways, in real life, of handling some of the feelings Bella experiences. Because vampires or no vampires, heartbreak is a part of life.)
Bella’s a better person than I am in some ways, more ethical, more rational, more controlled. For instance, I’d want to tell Edward’s secret. I don’t think I would, if I loved him the way Bella does, but I’d want to. I’d be bursting to tell my friends that the reason he’s exquisite, aloof, unique and never comes to school when the sun is out, is because he’s a vampire.
But wait! He’s a good vampire. Yes, in his own words, he’s a monster. But he doesn’t want to be. He, and his family, are unusual in the Vampire Community, because they choose not to take human life to sustain themselves. They stick to animals – and not even the cute little helpless ones. They take down the predators. They like a (sort of) fair fight. And even though Bella is, in his words, exactly his brand of heroin (remember, her blood sings for him), he chooses not to take her life, even before he falls head-over-heels in love. He leaves his family and his home, voluntarily exiles himself, to prevent himself from taking the life of a solitary 17-year-old girl he doesn’t even know, and who not many people in Forks, Washington, would even miss. She’s new, after all, and a bit of a loner. (Though some of the boys would be devastated.) But Edward is just that damned good.
So I guess it’s a combination of things. First, Stephenie Meyer takes us back to that passionate, effervescent time when everything hurt a thousand times more and felt a thousand times as good…when life was all bright colors and dramatic words…when it seemed that we couldn’t possibly survive the heartbreak or the ecstasy of love…and when we had no control over our lives and were completely subject to the whims of the adults around us. And then, she puts us in the driver’s seat. Bella’s got way more control than any of us ever did. And remember, when we were teenagers, life wasn’t all that exciting. Not so for Bella. Her life is a mile-a-minute ride on the Roller Coaster of Dangerous Unpredictability, once she sets foot in Forks. And that’s extra-cool, because before that, she was just as dull and ordinary as any of us.
Secondly, there’s a fascination with the determination of the Cullens to be good. Carlisle, the patriarch, is a religious man, beautiful and courteous and thoughtful and gentle. He has never taken a human life to feed (the exceptions are those he transformed, but they were at the verge of death already, so he didn’t take lives that weren’t already being lost) in all his several hundred years as a vampire, conquering even the first all-consuming thirst in his refusal to be evil. He is so good, that he has developed an iron control over his thirst so that he can actually work as a doctor, to save the lives of the humans that his less-principled brethren view as nothing more than meat. The rest of the Cullens follow him, not only out of a belief that he is right, but out of overwhelming love and respect. And how many families can you say that about?
Third, the characters are so charming. Even the ones we hate – the evil James, Victoria and Laurent, the sour-grapes bitchy Rosalie, even (eventually) the vampire-Mafia Volturi – are captivating. My personal favorite is Alice, a beautiful, tiny spiky-haired pixie girl that effortlessly charms the heart right out of your chest with her quirky ways, her tinkling laughter, and her eerie ability to predict the future. I sigh over Jasper, who fights constantly with the thirst (he’s newest to the vegetarian life) but refuses to give in, for sheer love of Alice. I giggle at Emmett, the bear-like jock of the Cullen clan, whose unflagging enthusiasm for a fight and rough humor remind me somewhat of my own older brothers. I worship from afar at the feet of Esme, the ever-gentle and loving mother-figure with endless patience and consuming love for her family – and instant acceptance of Bella, because Edward loves her. I even feel a sad kinship with Rosalie, the even-more-inhumanly-beautiful-than-anyone-else Bella-hater, who suffers daily with this life she would never have chosen, and which has denied her the things she wants more than anything. (But oh, the revenge she took for that – which, more than anything, convinces me that I’ve got more in common with her than with anyone. Cause I’d have slaughtered the bastards, too. And laughed while I did it.)
And then there’s sweet Jacob Black, the “normal” guy who loves Bella but was just that much too late to ever have her, and whose life is turned inside out because of things he can’t control. I don’t want to love him, but I can’t help it. He’s so good.
It’s ironic that Meyer paints her supernatural characters so vividly, when the “real humans” in the story are actually sort of insipid and pale. But then, we are seeing them, as everything, through Bella’s eyes – and once she’s met the Cullens, the rest of the world does seem pale and insipid. Once she’s met the Cullens, there is no going back for her, ever.
And then there’s the plot. Yeah, there actually is one, as if you need it after the sheer surfeit of emotion. I was shocked too. Each book in the series has its own self-contained crisis, and where another author might have struggled with preventing a formulaic feel, Meyer manages to make recurrent issues new each time, and use each one to give us an ever-clearer and more realistic picture of the wider Vampire World. By Breaking Dawn, we get a real sense that there’s a whole other world out there where Bella and Edward will exist long after they’ve left the fringes of our consciousness.
I even love the way Meyer explains Bella’s recurring descents into life-threatening danger. As Bella tells Edward when he complains that she’s a danger-magnet, and he’s having a hard time keeping her alive, “Did you ever think that maybe my number was up the first time [you saved me], with the van, and that you’ve been interfering with fate?” (Twilight, Chapter 8, p.174). To which Edward responds, “Your number was up the first time I met you.” (Twilight, Chapter 8, p.175). Melodramatic? Sure. But in the context of the world Meyer has created, it makes sense.
The icing on the cake – and an essential ingredient, for me – is that it is well-written. Meyer has a facility with words and an instinctive understanding of the lyrical quality of the language that makes the book a pleasure to read. I’ve become hyper-critical since I started actually learning about writing, about how to write well, and it’s very difficult for me to read nine-tenths of the books currently on the market. Plotting and characterization aside, all too often they are simply badly written in the sense of word-flow. Too often, it’s physically painful for me to wade through the words to find the sense of what I’m reading. That is not the case here. Despite the fact that I was reading it under duress, and therefore was determined to hate it, I enjoyed it from the first paragraph. I was drawn in despite my reluctance, and I haven’t managed to escape yet.
So that’s my little self-indulgent justification for my addiction. I suppose you could use Edward’s analogy; Twilight is exactly my brand of heroin.