Go ahead and do a double take.
Twilight has gotten a terrible rap over the past five years or so. Some backlash was probably inevitable, given its level of popularity, but when you examine the severity of the backlash objectively, it’s sort of stunning. This book has become the go-to example of terrible fiction, YA or otherwise. The mere word Twilight has become a joke.
But especially after watching Twin Peaks last summer, I found myself remembering the Twilight aesthetic (if nothing else) with fondness. This was a story with a great deal of potential. Vampires are an old favorite, and the Pacific Northwest has great atmosphere for that sort of story—just ask David Lynch!
Please understand that this is not to say that Stephenie Meyer’s books lived up to their potential. They did not, as most people would admit. But I was willing to give the first novel a reread for nostalgia (I read—or rather listened to—Twilight before it became a smash hit, and enjoyed it as somewhat interesting bubblegum vampire story)…and to answer a few questions.
Since I seriously began reviewing books, I have been guilty of comparing bland, annoying, or unlikable female characters to Bella Swan. Several YA novels I read over the past year made me extremely angry for being blatant Twilight ripoffs; wasn’t one bad enough?!
And so I asked myself, when I checked out the book again: is Bella Swan as much of a Mary Sue as everyone says she is? Is Meyer’s writing as juvenile as everyone claims? Is the book itself as embarrassingly bad as is now common wisdom?
Let’s find out.
First of all, I still love the concept: Vampires! In the coastal Pacific Northwest!
What could go wrong? I especially love the idea of incorporating Quileute legends (and characters, of course) into the story. None of it quite worked out; Meyer does not have a great deal of writing talent, so her writing constantly bogged down her story. Still, she gets points for effort. At least it intrigued me.
We can all agree that Twilight is not well-written. There are blogs dedicated to how awful the series’ prose is—even down to the sentence structure (and frankly, I think that’s taking the “Twilight-is-shit” backlash to an unnecessary and rather mean-spirited extreme). Meyer, for instance, uses adverbs ad nauseam, and fond as I am of adverbs myself, overusing them is often the mark of lazy and unsophisticated writing. Once you notice them, they also start getting on your nerves. The main issue I had—other than the adverbs—was how unlimited Bella’s first-person narration was. She assumed far too much about the motivations and thoughts of other characters. Perhaps Ms. Meyer forgot that Edward is the mind-reader?
With all that out of the way, I can say that the mediocre writing didn’t actually bother me too much. I found it as entertaining and fast-paced as I did the first time around, especially once the plot actually arrived after vampire baseball.
Vampire baseball. I’ll never stop chuckling over the absurdity of that one.
I also found a few select passages quite lovely:
[T]he mile-long crescent of First Beach was familiar to me. It was still breathtaking. The water was dark gray, even in the sunlight, white-capped and heaving to the gray, rocky shore. Islands rose out of the steel harbor waters with sheer cliff sides, reaching to uneven summits, and crowned with austere, soaring firs. The beach had only a thin border of actual sand at the water’s edge, after which it grew into millions of large, smooth stones that looked uniformly gray from a distance, but close up were every shade a stone could be: terra-cotta, sea green, lavender, blue gray, dull gold. The tide line was strewn with huge driftwood trees, bleached bone white in the salt waves, some piled together against the edge of the forest fringe, some lying solitary, just out of reach of the waves. (114-15)
Meyer conjures up a chilly, northern coast perfectly here. I love it.
Even if…but I couldn’t think it. Not here, alone in the darkening forest. Not while the rain made it dim as twilight under the canopy and pattered like footsteps across the matted earthen floor. (139)
I tried to describe impossible things like the scent of creosote—bitter, slightly resinous, but still pleasant—the high, keening sound of cicadas in July, the feathery barrenness of the trees, the very size of the sky, extending white-blue from horizon to horizon, barely interrupted by the low mountains covered with purple volcanic rock. The hardest thing to explain was why it was so beautiful to me—to justify a beauty that didn’t depend on the sparse, spiny vegetation that often looked half dead, a beauty that had more to do with the exposed shape of the land with shallow bowls of valleys between the craggy hills, and the way they held onto the sun. (232)
And for all the widespread sneering about “sparkly” vampires, I don’t even think Twilight is too embarrassing as a piece of the vampire literature canon. Vampires were stars of pulp fiction for a long time—and they still are. Other than the sparkles, I kind of like the little details Meyer included in her undeniably unique lore: eye color changing based on diet, etc. Call me crazy I guess.
I also enjoyed Bella as a character and a narrator much more than I thought I would. Rereading, I must respectfully disagree with the thousands of people who claim that she is a one-dimensional figure onto whom young female readers can project their own personalities. Not only do I think Bella had her own personality, I found that personality quite relatable (and not because I simply pinned myself overtop of her).
I didn’t have the necessary hand-eye coordination to play sports without humiliating myself—and harming both myself and anyone else who stood too close. (10)
Same. Like Bella, I am a regular danger-prone Daphne.
Sometimes I wondered if I was seeing the same things through my eyes that the rest of the world was seeing through theirs. Maybe there was a glitch in my brain. (10-11)
Maybe this is just a literary cliche, but I believe many people feel this way at some point in their lives, especially as teenagers.
[The reading list] was fairly basic: Bronte, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Faulkner. I’d already read everything. (15)
A lot of people probably roll their eyes at this, because (I think) those people dismiss Bella as stupid and/or vapid. I read Twilight before I had read any of these authors (with the exception of Shakespeare), but looking back, there’s no reason a high school junior who took advanced classes [as Bella did in Phoenix] and who had a passion for reading should not have already read a Bronte novel (she tells us later it was Wuthering Heights), a Shakespeare play, The Canterbury Tales, and As I Lay Dying (or The Sound and the Fury). All of those works were either required or suggested by my high school. I’m buying it.
At home, only two years of P.E. were required. Here, P.E. was mandatory all four years. Forks was literally my personal hell on earth. (26)
My sentiments on P.E. exactly.
It was nice to be inside the supermarket; it felt normal. (32)
I began rereading Twilight not too long after moving 1,000 miles from home, and let me tell you: she’s not wrong. Grocery stores feel remarkably normal and familiar when everything else is foreign.
“I’m more annoyed with myself. My face is so easy to read—my mother always calls me her open book.” I frowned. (50)
I feel you, Bella. My face is very expressive, and my father has given me crap about trying to control my facial expressions for most of my life. I, too, wish I could be harder for others to read.
So to sum up, is Bella really nothing more than a black hole of a character, a blank slate utterly devoid of voice and personality upon which young female readers can write their own?
Definitely not. Bella may not be as fleshed-out as some better authors’ heroines, but she is more than a paper doll. She loves to read; she has a dry wit; she enjoys cooking (or at least has a talent for it); she is introverted, shy, and socially awkward. She is fairly mature and responsible, often self-deprecating and selfless*. And yes, she is clumsy and prone to accidents.
And one last thing: Bella’s appearance may not be described in explicit detail, but her overall look (pale, petite, dark hair & eyes) is something else I share with her, and this tidbit also applies to me:
“I never noticed before—your hair has red in it,” he commented, catching between his fingers a strand that was fluttering in the light breeze.
“Only in the sun.” (143)
You see, people always insist that my hair is black (it isn’t, and when I’m in the sun that becomes a lot more obvious), but I also have reddish strands hidden away in there that only make themselves known in sunlight, so I appreciated that particular detail.
Not to belabor the point, but again, Bella is no more invisible than she is empty. She is pale and petite with delicate features, dark hair and brown eyes. That a dozen, a hundred, or a thousand girls share some or all of those physical characteristics with her does not mean that every girl who reads Twilight can automatically paste her own face (or personality) over Miss Swan’s.
Once more, with feeling: Bella is not a stand-in/self-insert for readers.
Though her obsession with Edward grows pretty tiresome as the novel progresses, no one can argue that Bella isn’t self-aware, either. She acknowledges:
I couldn’t allow him to have this level of influence over me. It was pathetic. More than pathetic, it was unhealthy. (74)
And their relationship is unhealthy, especially in the beginning. That said, this is a book series about vampires and werewolves, for God’s sake! Fiction should never be limited
at all by what is considered morally acceptable. It should freely deal with any subject(s) of the author’s choosing, emotionally unhealthy teen romance included. And Bella and Edward are fictional. No real teen girls were harmed in the writing of this book.
And if George R. R. Martin can slaughter or torture three-fourths of his characters in graphic detail to the delight of millions, who can say that Ms. Meyer cannot publish her problematic love story? Is it because the latter was written for young adults? Again, call me crazy (or naive), but I doubt that Twilight lured as many of its readers into abusive relationships as its detractors would have you believe. Please give teenagers more credit than that. Most of them are capable of separating their own lives and fluffy, escapist fantasy (Twilight)—and it isn’t Meyer’s fault if they aren’t.
tl;dr Meyer wasn’t trying to brainwash or influence anybody with her books and probably couldn’t if she had tried. She was writing a love story. With vampires. And werewolves. And that’s okay, even if the romance in question was objectively an unhealthy one.
Maybe it’s because I liked Bella so much, but I also saw Twilight as being about her journey instead of merely about a romance. True, that romance dominates her journey, and perhaps the narrative doesn’t do right by its heroine. But the narrative is hers nevertheless. It’s her story, and say what you will about Bella, but she knows what she wants, and she shows as much determination as any other YA heroine out there when it comes to getting it.
Did I mention that she’s also pretty funny? Here are some Bella moments that made me laugh:
“It doesn’t rain much [in Phoenix], does it?”
“Three or four times a year.”
“Wow, what must that be like?” he wondered.
“Sunny,” I told him.
“You don’t look very tan.”
“My mother is part albino.” (16)
Mike Newton doesn’t get your humor, Bella, but I think you’re hilarious.
And [Edward] was. Interesting…and brilliant…and mysterious…and perfect…and beautiful…and possibly able to lift full-sized vans with one hand. (79)
Adverbs or not, I loved her her voice sometimes. I mean, sometimes first-person narrators have no voice at all!
“Besides, the freezer is getting dangerously low on fish—we’re down to a two, maybe a three years’ supply.” (251)
Sarcasm is my second language, and Bella’s too. (And anyone who says she’s stupid needs to read up on the links between sarcasm and intelligence. …Okay, okay, maybe that’s a little much, but the girl is funny.)
Best of the Rest: Edward did not impress me (nor has he ever); he had his moments of course, especially when you can really feel his tenderness towards Bella, but often he came across as smarmy, condescending, even downright mean. Of all the Cullens, I’ve always liked Emmett best. Alice, Carlisle, and Esme weren’t bad, either. I do wish the entire family been fleshed out a bit more, because their backstories are—for the most part—quite interesting.
I really liked Jacob, then and now (I was on “Team” Jacob once). I’m tempted to reread New Moon just for Bella and Jacob as characters. But seriously, he’s precious in Twilight. I wish the narrative had done right by him, too. Oh well. I still love you for what you could have been, Jacob Black!
In summary, Twilight has a great aesthetic behind it. No, it does not live up to its potential, nor is it very well-written. It is, however, entertaining. It is good pulp fiction. It grasps the theme of most vampire stories (from the Victorian era): unattainable or repressed desire. I don’t think the first volume is worthy of being the butt of so many jokes, and henceforth I’ll stop using Bella Swan as a prime example of bland, Mary Sue characters, because it simply isn’t so.
I’m also willing to forgive Twilight for being, at least, somewhat original at the time of its publication. A ton of YA authors have tried to duplicate parts of the first novel (or all of it, depending) in hopes of hitting it big the way Meyer did. The majority of those later books feature all the worst things about Twilight magnified several times over (if you think Bella is annoying, vapid, etc., you’ve got another thing coming). They may—sometimes—feature better writing, but they’re ripoffs all the same.
In the end, I just wish that Bella had ended up with a better story.
*I call her selfless in all seriousness; Bella almost sacrifices herself in hopes of saving not only her mother and father, but everyone she loves for fear that James will try to use them to get to her. If that isn’t courageous and selfless, I don’t know what is.