Friday, February 13, 2009

My Head in a Book, or Two or Three

Bea has been reading the Twilight series, by Stephanie Meyers, which means, cheap bastard that I am, I'm reading them too. I tore through the first three, bitching the whole way, and now I'm waiting for Bea to finish the fourth. She's enjoyed them far more than I have, but I'm a book whore, so I'll read anything. It's taken until the fourth book for her to get tired of the series, whereas I was saying, "Oh, come on!" after the first, although it didn't make me put them down; you know, the whole book whore thing again.

Maybe I'm just too old to relate to a teen novel, although I never felt that way about the Harry Potter series, and I just reread several of the Little House books for discussion with my 5th grade reading group, and my only beef with Laura Ingalls Wilder is that she never really explores the language, she simply narrates. But it's a fascinating slice of life to have lived through, and it's meant for young readers, so I let her off the hook.

Maybe it's because I just re-read Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes, which is one of the most lyrical novels I've ever read. He weaves the lives of his characters, with their diverse weaknesses, needs, and fears, through a spellbindingly creepy storyline. He neatly and concisely brings the separate parts together, wraps them up and places a bow of profound philosophy on top. I didn't have the same reaction to his short stories, especially the space-themed ones, which reflect the pessimism of the Cold War period they're written in, but reading SWTWC is sublimely different. I find myself re-reading passages aloud, because they're so beautiful and poetic, I want to caress my ears with them again and again, like sliding a fine silk scarf over your head, just for the feel of it.

But back to Twilight and why I wasn't impressed. This is a four book series that really should have been only two or three. (I haven't read book four, so I can't say anything about it - yet!) I get the distinct impression the publisher played a part in deciding how long this series should be; you know, so they could sell more books, make more movie deals, maybe a line of clothing and backpacks. It's not a new concept: I told Bea how this series reminded me of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan, which was written as a serial for a magazine. He got paid by the word, so he wrote "noble savage" and reiterated Tarzan's innate superiority over the natives ad nauseum, because it made the novel spin out longer, and he made more money.

The main characters, Bella and Edward, go back and forth over whether they should even have a relationship for two freaking books. It was akin to reading three seasons of Grey's Anatomy scripts; you know, the push-me-pull-you that defines Meredith and McDreamy's relationship, the reason I gave up watching that show. They can't ever make up their minds and stick with it! I had problems with Bella from the beginning, though. She tells us right off that she's a super responsible person who's always had to be the parent for her dipshit of a mom, but we never see any evidence of that responsible part of her character, other than handling dinner for her dad, so why did the author even put that in there? She also makes Bella out to be this major klutz, which I guess is supposed to make the trumped-up stories she tells her dad throughout the books more plausible, but I can't help but wonder why any vampire would find her remotely attractive, if she's that ungainly, and what does it serve, in terms of pushing the story forward, to make her a loose cannon physically in gym class?

Introducing of a trio of "bad" vampires right near the end of the first novel to act as the catalyst seemed clumsy, and tacked on, and it didn't improve my feelings about it to have that trio serve as the catalyst for the next two books. I call it "Vampyre ex Machina", and it's as flimsy a device now as it was in Greek tragedies. It's one of my arguments for why the first two novels should have been condensed into one much tighter volume. For a bunch of folks who've been around for over a hundred years (some much longer) they sure can't put one and one together. It took until the end of the third novel for the vampires to realize the same damn "bad" vampire was behind all the mayhem in that novel - you think maybe becoming a vampire does something to their gray matter? That they're mentally challenged vampires? No, it's just sloppy writing.

I can also see the point many feminists are making about this novel, how Bella is a terrible role model for young girls. She really is. Okay, so she and her boyfriend are chaste, but their relationship is anything but equal, and she's the one who allows that. Phrases like, "he pulled her into his lap; he held her face in his hand forcing her to look at him" were written so many times in this series, that I swear to god, you could find something to that effect on almost every page. Bella is a walking advertisement for abuse, and there is nothing in her sketchily drawn past that would account for her masochistic tendencies. I feel nothing but exasperation and irritation for this character - she is selfish, self-pitying, thoughtless, irresponsible, and for the life of me, I can't understand what anyone would see in her. Sure, those are all traits common to the average teen, but the author made it a point to say she was otherwise, the motivation of which is still unclear to me. I would strongly caution anyone with a daughter reading this to have a serious discussion about relationships, and use Bella as the prime example of what NOT to do.

So now that I've gotten all my negativity over this series out, let me point out some of the positive aspects of these books.

I think Twilight's premise is intriguing; the idea that there would be vampires who didn't want to be monsters on a perpetual serial killing rampage throughout the centuries is a fresh and original concept. Anne Rice deals with it briefly in her books, in the character of Louis, but she presents him as an aberration, and something of an outcast. I like the way Meyers gives us insight into how this clan of vampires became "civilized" via Edward's story of how Carlisle becomes a vampire. I like the way she introduces the vampires to us, within an old Indian legend. In fact, the Quileute Indians and their culture form the strongest, and most plausible parts of these novels. Even when the Quileutes reveal their supernatural response to the vampires' proximity by turning into werewolves it isn't hard to suspend my disbelief. The character Jacob Black is, from the very beginning, the best developed and most identifiable character of the entire series.

The introduction of the vampire clan Volturi in Twilight is expanded upon in the second book, New Moon, although I would have liked to see them enter the story a little sooner than right near the end, employing Meyer's favorite "Vampyre ex Machina" formula yet again, resulting in another seemingly hasty and ill-conceived ending. The transformation of Jacob into a werewolf is probably the best part of book two, as he continues to be the best drawn, and most likeable character in the series.

The third book in this series, Eclipse, is the very best of them all, and it's because the characters we've been reading about for two previous novels, finally gain some history, giving their actions clarity and motivation. The Quileute legends also deepen and expand, as does our understanding of the werewolf pack. Even Edward, a painfully old fashioned boy with quite the stick up his butt, loosens up and acts like less of a tyrant, and more like a man deeply in love. Eclipse benefits from much a much tighter storyline - it's action packed, and the story moves along much more smoothly and enjoyably, making me think the author either finally hit her stride with this one, or this was the one novel the publisher stopped trying to fragment for monetary purposes.

The film Twilight did a better job of streamlining the story, and defining the characters than the books did. The director chose to show early in the film vampires attacking normal people, allowing us to speculate who those vampires are, and opening the door for the insertion of the "bad" vampires who show up near the end. The film also downplayed Bella's responsible allegations, allowing her to simply be an average teen, and only briefly touched on her clumsiness. Edward was far more likeable in the film; we're given glimpses into his motivations, so he doesn't come off nearly as cold or pompous as he does in print. The cinematography was beautiful, and the eerie other-worldliness beauty of the vampires was perfectly rendered. The soundtrack will no doubt be de riguer for all teen girls, and it wasn't half bad-sounding to an old broad either. If you're on the fence about reading this series, go see the film - it takes less time and delivers a neater punch, in my estimation.

But then, like I said, I might just be too old to really appreciate this series.

I think Gypsy did a review on this a few months back, and not having read the series, I wasn't able to give an opinion. Having just gone back to re-read what she said, I see we're on exactly the same page, which doesn't surprise me - Gypsy is like Buddha, only a lot sexier!


Gypsy said...

God, I couldn't agree more! What an annoying series of books. And yet I read them. Or no I didn't, really, I listened to them on CD. But still. Just thinking about them frustrates the hell out of me. And I despair for the young girls of the world who think life and love is going to be like this.

Of course, I was reading Bertrice Small and Johanna Lindsey at, like, 12, and now I think my life should be that of harem girl/courtesan/Scottish rebel/pirate queen, so go figure.

Lancelot, however, loved the Twilight books. I haven't a clue what this means about us, but I'm sure it's very telling in some strange way.

Csquaredplus3 said...

I haven't read these books. I'm just not interested. Your review (which is written better than the Twilight books, I'm certain) confirms that until I have nothing else to read, and that's all that's available (and free), I'll pass. Thank you!

Chanda (aka Bea) said...

Hey, at least it wasn't a series about a down trodden woman of the Appalachian Mountains!

You know I agree with much of what you've said here, though it took me until book four to finally reach the end of my patience with Bella. I'm not sure what that says about me- perhaps I'm WAY too in touch with my inner 16 year old, and I have an unhealthy obsession with overly melodramatic angst. I listen to an awful lot of Evanessence as it is.

You really did miss your calling as a book critic or editor;this was so well done!

Arizaphale said...

I guess I need to read these and discuss them with the BA then because she devoured the lot over the Christmas break AND has seen the film AND has the soundtrack AND calls Edward 'Mr Perfect'! :-(
I had only heard people rave about them so I was unaware of the dubious nature of a) the writing and b) the main characters!
Thanks for the 'heads up'!!

FairiesNest said...

Several things to say here:
1) You have got to read Bradbury's
"Summer Morning Summer Night" I just finished my library copy and it was wonderful!! His short stories set in a small town are fabulous...I wasn't as big a fan of his science fiction either...but "Dandelion Wine" is a classic. Also read "The Halloween Tree" (the professor will love it) and "From the Dust Returned" (a book that Neil Gaiman obviously was riffing on with his Newbery winner "The Graveyard Book"). God I love the way that man writes!!! (Bradbury, I mean, although I admit to being a Gaiman fan as well...but nobody write prose that reads like poetry the way Ray does.)
2)I think the whole Twilight thing is intended as romance novels for teens so they'll be prepped for reading the romance crap that passes for fantasy novels these days. Don't even get me started...
Great review Sis!

flutter said...

Sorry, I loved the series. It does gel in book 4.

Now, I will concede that if I read the word "murmur" one more time in the series I was going to eat my own eye...but I don't at all agree that Bella was a walking advert for abuse.

Maggie, Dammit said...

I absolutely saw Bella as a walking advertisement for abuse. I was interviewing women for my DV article while I was reading, so I saw things through that lens, and maybe that made me biased, or maybe it made me aware.

I also thought they were incredibly poorly written.

And I devoured the entire series, so.... what do I know. ;)

VelveetaWingnut said...

I read this series a couple months ago and then reread it just a couple weeks ago. I find Bella to be extremely irritating. Meyer's I think put all of her clumsiness in there to make her an anti-Mary-Sue character which really failed.

Now please tell me, but was I the only person creeped out by the fact that we had a 75-90 year old man 'in love' with a 17 year old girl? Granted he died when he was 17, but he still has all of the 'life' experience of someone much much older. Maybe I was just looking at this from a mum of an 11 year old girl's point of view. It just seemed to me that he could have been really playing her and she would never have known it.

Also, wasn't Bella just a little obsessed? Was this natural or was it the vampire lure that he was so careful to explain to her at one point?

I liked the series for what it was, but yes, there was some of it that I had to flip some switches in my head to get around.

But, yeah cuz, if you want to smack Bella, I'll hold her for you.

And some day I'll ahve to explain the full fledged idol worship that was going on across the aisle from us in the theater that night. It was quite a show put on my two 14 year old girls. Quite entertaining really.

Madge said...

i just can't decide if i should read them...

A Free Man said...

I keep hearing about this series and was wondering if it was going to be the next Harry Potter. Sounds like I should save my money.

Vodka Mom said...

We book whores must stick together. (And I LOVE SWTWC, as well! )

great minds........

bandick said...

You're neat.

Kelley said...

Hey lady!

Sorry I dropped off the face of the Earth... These things happen sometimes.

Coincidentally, I just ordered Twilight. I caved.

Now I have something unremarkable to look forward to. ;)

Autumn said...

I have nothing to add, other than I have never read the Twilight books, and I'm not too sure I will.

Of course, I've never read Harry Potter, either, and everyone keeps telling me what I'm missing....

Gypsy said...


Just four of the most overused words in the Twilight series.

Anonymous said...

"I can't help but wonder why any vampire would find her remotely attractive"

Because she's played by Kristen Stewart! Hello??

Kelley said...

Okay. So now I'm 3 books into the Twilight series.

You're so right. One book would have been plenty. I don't even want to read the fourth at this point but feel compelled.