By Stephanie Meyer
Thanks to a coworker who generously lent me the entire Twilight saga, December became the month for gratuitous self-indulgence!
If I was a teenager today I don't think I'd be able to resist the whole Twilight phenomenon (having read a fair number of Sweet Dreams books and young adult fantasy at that tender age). Now as an adult in pre-holiday mode, I can allow myself to be swept up again in pure flights of fancy... albeit with a slightly more, ahem, mature perspective.
The rather unremarkable heroine, Bella Swan, is the perfect cipher for the young adult reader of the female persuasion. Plagued by the usual teen foibles -- shyness, extreme awkwardness and low self-esteem -- she's ordinary enough to make her identifiable, but pretty enough to make her appealing to the boys in her new high school. Bella is mature beyond her years for a 17-year-old, which sets her apart as a kind of loner, but she’s compassionate and loves those who are close to her, so she remains connected to humanity. When Bella moves from sunny Arizona to rainy small-town Forks to live with her Dad, she becomes the new girl in town, the one who’d rather be a wallflower than the centre of attention.
Not surprisingly, Edward Cullen is a preternaturally gorgeous youth with perfectly tousled bronze hair, brooding intelligence and the kind of mysterious qualities that make him wholly unattainable for the average teenage girl. It's obvious from the get-go that what really sets Edward and his siblings apart from the regular crowd is their secret vampire identities. And the reason why they even attend high school and coexist with human society in the first place is because they are civilized and humane bloodsuckers: they don’t believe in killing people for food (instead preferring to hunt large, and let's hope, non-endangered animals in the wild expanse of the Pacific Northwest), thus distinguishing the Cullen family as kind of, well, unconventional vampires.
Edward’s immortal zen gets totally thrown when he gets a whiff of the enticing blood coursing through Bella’s veins and is sent into a state of barely controlled frenzy. When he gets over his baser instincts of objectifying Bella as tasty game (he is a deep and conscientious vamp, after all), he sees past her ordinariness and recognizes a potential soul mate, aka The One he’s been searching for, like, the past 90 years of his brief immortal existence.
Though the first meeting is a twist on the “attraction” at first sight, the first half of Twilight is disappointingly on the banal side. Edward’s rescue of Bella from a car accident and then assault from Port Angeles rednecks felt rather contrived and Bella’s discovery of Edward’s true identity is rather ho-hum. And the courtship between the young lovers develops quite normally: they converse over dinner at a restaurant, e.g. what’s it like to be Bella, the vulnerable self-effacing human? What’s it like to be Edward, the sulky hunky teenage vampire with a heart of gold? They talk and talk some more while driving in the car, over lunch at the school cafeteria, and walking to class together, etc etc. Bella learns that Edward can read minds, but the only mind he can’t read is Bella’s. Big Whoop. Things get hot n’ heavy when Edward shows Bella his special place in the woods. But oh, they can’t go all the way because Edward is afraid he might lose all self-control and kill his one true love by drinking all her blood!
I was getting highly skeptical that this was going to be anything more than a hyped-up teen romance disguised as a vapid vampire story. Where was the friggin’ action? And I don’t mean action in the sense of the heavy petting variety, but action in the form of adventure, physical violence and carnage! Finally about halfway through, the plot gets more interesting when Bella meets Edward’s “family”, which is actually more like a coven of vampires comprised of 3 couples: Carlisle and Esme, Rosalie and Emmett, and Alice and Jasper. Since Edward is the odd one out, his family members are mostly accepting of Edward’s rather unorthodox choice for a mate.
Carlisle and Esme appear the oldest, so their ‘official’ story is of a couple who have adopted the others into a kind of extended family. In vampire terms, Carlisle is the leader who established his ‘humane’ coven out of years of loneliness as an eccentric vampire who wishes not to murder. The Cullens only drink human blood when ‘rescuing’ those who are going to die anyway, and transform them into immortal companions. Interestingly enough, Edward has no wish to turn Bella into a vampire for reasons of his own, despite Bella’s desire to love him forever and forever.
Then real conflict arises during a fateful Cullen family baseball game in the form of three visiting vampires. Laurent, James and Victoria are vampires of the typical variety who feed on humans: they tend to be nomadic, avoid human society as much as possible and travel in small groups out of practicality. Although Laurent expresses interest in the Cullen’s unconventional lifestyle, James and Victoria are ‘trackers’, amoral hunters who are obsessed with the challenge of a chase, be it human or otherwise. And the challenge of a strong vampire clan protecting their only vulnerability, a frail human, proves too much to resist. Things then actually get quite exciting and suspenseful when the Cullen Clan strategize like pieces on a chess board to protect their human queen while, at the same time, try to eliminate their threat.
It’s just too bad all this action and excitement is rushed through the last third of the novel. Twilight is primarily a romance, after all, about an ordinary heroine thrown into a set up extraordinary circumstances. So when Meyer decides to turn on the action switch, the story falls into fantastic mode seamlessly and compellingly. There is definitely enough interest sustained in the story development and characters for me to read the next installment. My only complaint is how much is made of Edward’s youthful beauty, his dazzling this and his perfect that. I know vampires are supposed to be seductively pulchritudinous but does almost every member of the Cullen family has to be described looking either like supermodels or movie stars? The constant worship of mainstream beauty gets a little tiresome (alas this isn't about being clever) but I guess this stokes the bland imaginations of the Seventeen or Teen Vogue set just fine!
I’m also a little suspicious about Bella’s association with Billy Black, one of the elders of the Quileute Indian reservation outside the town of Forks, who's close friends with her father, Charlie. Billy still believes in the ‘old legends’ and seems to be the only person who knows of the Cullens’ true nature. Through his son Jacob, Billy makes a few attempts to warn Bella of the dangers of associating with such creatures. Although the Quileutes is a real tribe based in the coastal region of Washington state, I’m highly suspicious of the creative license Meyer will make riffing on First Nations culture, which may likely happen the next book, so let’s just see what happens next…