Thursday, March 22, 2012

Book Review: Twilight (Book 1 of Twilight)


Twilight (2005), Stephenie Meyer. Paperback, 544 pages. 

Summary: A girl moves to a small town on the Northwest Coast, and discovers that her classmate is a vampire. Danger and adolescent romance ensue. For a more detailed summary, click here.

Excerpt:
     "Honestly, Edward." I felt a thrill go through me as I said his name, and I hated it. "I can't keep up with you. I thought you didn't want to be my friend."
     "I said it would be better if we weren't friends, not that I didn't want to be."
     "Oh, thanks, now that's all cleared up." Heavy sarcasm. I realized I had stopped walking again. We were under the shelter of the cafeteria roof now, so I could more easily look at his face. Which certainly didn't help my clarity of thought.
     "It would be more . . . prudent for you not to be my friend," he explained. "But I'm tired of trying to stay away from you, Bella."
     His eyes were gloriously intense as he uttered that last sentence, his voice smoldering. I couldn't remember how to breathe.
     "Will you go with me to Seattle?" he asked, still intense.
     I couldn't speak yet, so I just nodded.
     He smiled briefly, and then his face became serious.
     "You really should stay away from me," he warned. "I'll see you in class."
     He turned abruptly and walked back the way we'd come.

STATS

Writing Quality: 4/10

Depth of Concept: 2/10

Rounded Characters: 4/10

Well-Developed World: 5/10

Page Turner: 7/10

Kept Me Thinking: 3/10
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Overall Recommendation: 5/10 


DETAILS

Writing Quality: 4/10. Meyer is a passable fantasy writer. She beats out Christopher Paolini and Terry Goodkind, one a bestseller of young adult fiction like Meyer, and one a bestseller of adult fantasy. The first half of the book is, unfortunately, full of repetitions of the vampire's "smoldering" eyes, and of Bella's increasingly airheaded and obnoxious reactions to his advances. Those glaringly bad moments fade somewhat later in the novel when the action picks up, and the prose becomes much more readable, and actually quite snappy. Meyer's ability with dialogue probably surpasses her ability with descriptive passages, and while her characters aren't particularly fun or funny, their conversations feel smooth and fairly accurate to the kinds of conversations teenagers might have, which takes at least some skill. I never came across a phrase that struck me as particularly good or memorable, and some are dumb, as when she describes the way the "air filtered down greenly through the leaves." Greenly? Still, I would possibly have scored Meyer a "5" if not for the increasingly laughable intimate scenes where Bella's "blood boiled under my skin, burned in my lips. My breath came in a wild gasp. My fingers knotted in his hair, clutching him to me." And perhaps worse, the infuriating descriptions of Edward's beautiful eyes on every. single. page. 

Depth of Concept: 2/10. This is not a deep book. It's about as deep as the fleeting thought: what if my teenage self could date a vampire? It smacks of wish-fulfillment, with Bella the stand-in for Meyer, and Edward the hunky, perfect heartthrob that teenage girls (and how many married women?) daydream about. I mean, really, we've got a self-described awkward, outsider girl getting hit on by every guy in the school, leaving her with her pick of the cream of the crop, the one that everyone lusts after. Having said that, I think there's something interesting to deconstruct in Meyer's tale of sexual frustration. I don't think she was really trying to do anything satirical or intentionally critical of the highs and lows of teenage crushes and sexual exploration, but a clever paper might explore the way Meyer unconsciously channels youthful sexual uncertainty into a "monster tale" where the closer a couple gets to climax, the closer the monster gets to destroying his prey. Meyer also misses a perfect opportunity to thoughtfully explore the distinctions between love and teenage infatuation. 

Rounded Characters: 4/10. The human characters in Twilight are completely uninteresting and undeveloped in comparison to the monsters. Bella's classmates are airheads and completely absorbed by "High School Musical" fears and concerns. Unfortunately, this characterization extends largely to Bella herself, whose main individualized characteristic is that she is unbelievably (literally) clumsy. We're told that she considers herself an outsider, different from her peers, but Meyer never really gives any specific reasons why this might be. She hates gym, but didn't most of us? We never learn what Bella's particular interests or dislikes are, beyond her preferences in weather and climate. She reads books, but never with any passion or insightful perspective. Still, Meyer does a decent, if infrequent, job of characterizing the Cullens, a vampire family with individuals who have distinctive personality traits and who interact with each other in surprisingly subtle ways.

Well-Developed World: 5/10. Meyer does a decent job of situating her characters in the damp, green, dreary Pacific Northwest, even if her descriptions of the environment are never particularly interesting or original. A lot of fantasy novels use settings that are throw-away backgrounds that never play into the plot in any significant way, but Meyer made the much-appreciated choice of infusing her world and characters with the environment around them. It's not exactly Dune in its execution, but at least the setting isn't a generic fantasy pastiche of every dramatic landscape you can think of. Although the two books are worlds apart in most ways, the sodden landscapes remind me of those to be found in A. S. Byatt's Possession.

Page Turner: 7/10. This is where Twilight really shines. The book was paced really well, such that even the early, action-less chapters are easy to read, and engaging enough that I wanted to find out what happens in the next chapter. I don't know how much of the pacing can be attributed to Meyer over her editor, but one can never really answer that question. Particularly once the action picks up, a little over halfway through the novel, it was hard to put the book down, and became a surprisingly enjoyable read, despite its flaws. I'd be curious to find out whether it's my masculine bias that reads the action-oriented scenes as the best part of the novel, or whether female readers feel the same.

Kept Me Thinking: 3/10. Nope. There's not much here to inspire critical thought, at least not much that was intended by the author. Meyer's "science" of vampirism doesn't compare particularly well to other versions of the vampire legend, with Scott Westerfeld's young adult novel Peeps being a standout. Nor does Meyer tie up problematic plot and character threads, such as failing to provide sufficient justification for Edward "outing" himself to Bella, when he clearly believes it is likely to ruin her life, even fatally. Perhaps most problematic for me was just how passive Bella's character was in the story. I'd actually have scored this a "2," if not for the way Bella's damsel-in-distress ways got my hackles up and encouraged me to start forming arguments against Meyer's depiction of the klutzy protagonist and her perfectly strong, perfectly handsome, perfectly brilliant, perfectly artistic, perfectly sensitive, abusively protective beau. I don't usually like to identify with activist groups, because they so easily get strident and obnoxious, and yet I couldn't help jumping the line into the feminist camp on this one. Every other page involves Edward man-handling Bella into one situation or out of another, only about half with safeguarding her immediate safety as an excuse. Another final problem is that there is never any particular explanation for why Bella loves Edward, beyond the fact that he is "incomparably beautiful" to look at, and that he exerts a magnetic influence from which she can't seem to escape, despite the danger he presents. Even without worrying about the close approximation this makes to women who can't leave abusive boyfriends or spouses, Meyer never offers any reason why Bella is not merely drawn in by a vampire's innate seductiveness, as other characters in the novel are. Simply put, there's no explanation for the "specialness" of their attraction.
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Overall Recommendation: 5/10. I scored this lower at first, but after writing my critiques, I've decided that the book offers so much that is interesting to discuss with others, even if it's at the expense of Meyer's inabilities and missteps. And even with those intellectually concerning missteps, I've got to admit it's a quick, engaging read. It might be a lot of fun to have a bunch of intelligent people read it and then dish on what they loved and hated, and such a discussion would say something about our society and youth today since the book was such a phenomenon, especially for the demographic the protagonist exemplifies.

Books To Compare: The obvious precursor to Meyer's vampire world is almost anything written by Anne Rice (who wrote both romance novels and vampire fiction), whom I only vaguely remember reading many years ago. I'll have to try her again sometime. Meyer herself claims that Jane Austen is her inspiration, but I don't think there's much in common aside from the rough plot point of young female characters seeking love. Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell would be a much worthier channeling of Austen. Her novel is not particularly gothic, so you can mostly scratch comparisons to Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe and their progenitors. Frankly, there's not much of the classics in Meyer's work, whether in tone, thoughtfulness, or subject matter. Meyer's novel reads much more as a pulp romance/adventure novel with vampires. Scott Westerfeld writes young adult fiction with some female protagonists, and his series starting with Peeps is a strong foray into vampire lore (more interesting and better written). For more ideas, try plugging it in to What Should I Read Next?

Check out Twilight on Amazon.

2 comments:

  1. This is a really good review.

    "It might be a lot of fun to have a bunch of intelligent people read it and then dish on what they loved and hated..." -- I attempted this.

    I didn't like the first book at all, but I kept reading. And I didn't like the second book, but still picked up the third.

    I've never stopped reading a book/series out of annoyance before, maybe from distraction or indifference, but never annoyance. And yet something about the third book pissed me off.

    I guess I was fed up with the lack of depth of concept and characters, and bitter over the fact that Meyer somehow managed to get me to follow the herd and read three of her crappy books.

    I did not read the last one.

    Never again, Stephanie Meyer. Never again.

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    Replies
    1. I think I can say I'm glad to have read the first book, just to be aware of it, but I'm really not interested in reading any of the rest. I might try giving The Host a try, just to see how Meyer does in a different story world, but I wouldn't expect it to be a great read; I'm just curious if her ability has improved over time.

      As a longtime fantasy reader, I probably wouldn't recommend this series to anyone, but I've definitely read worse stuff. Terry Goodkind comes to mind.

      Thanks for commenting!

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