Originally published as a series of reviews on LibraryThing.
Book 1: Twilight
Ah, Twilight. What can I say that other reviews have not? The first thing I’ll make clear is that I’m not going to vie with the reviews that find creative new ways to snark about the book’s weaknesses. Oh, there are plenty of them, and a book like Twilight just begs to be made fun of. But snark is so done already. I’ll divide my review into three sections: the little things that bothered me, the elements that are more deeply disturbing, and the things I did manage to enjoy.
For the little things: the first order of business is the writing. Usually this wouldn’t be a “little thing” with me, but in light of the other issues, it seems smaller. I went into this expecting the style to be, as a friend of mine put it, about as “insipid as hose water,” and found the expectations justified. It was not as bad as that monumental piece of bad writing, Eragon, which I had to drop after thirty pages because I simply couldn’t do it anymore. Nor was it quite at the level of Frank Beddor’s Looking Glass Wars, which was more like muddy hose water.
But that’s about where my dubious praise ends. Stephenie Meyer does a lot of “telling” instead of showing. I recently took a course on editing fiction and many of Meyer’s sentence constructions could be pulled for the samples we were to correct for our homework. An example of this is “Desolation hit me with crippling strength.” That’s called telling: no subtlety about it, no descriptions that would clue us in without being explicit. (And hint: “I felt desolation hit me with crippling strength” is not the way to fix that problem.) The writing is readable, but definitely frustrating and clunky. It is not necessary to follow every sentence of dialogue with a description of how it makes Bella feel, how Edward looks, etc.
(And speaking of the writing, I also have a problem with the editing. Have you ever heard of a “dust moat”? Me neither! Dust motes I have seen, but never a moat composed of dust. Fascinating thought. Who checked this book for typos, and why wasn’t it me?)
I confess being a little disappointed that Dracula didn’t even get a mention in this book; it’s such an important work to the history of vampire lit. But it wouldn’t jibe with Meyer’s good vampires, I suppose (noting, of course, that the idea of good vampires is nothing truly original with Meyer). I also didn’t understand why Meyer felt the need to include little digs against foreign-made cars, of all things! We are twice reminded that Bella’s truck would demolish any foreign-made car that it struck. Okay — ?
In addition, the plot is weak in many places, and Bella is not a consistent character. One minute she is coming up with a smart plan to escape the tracker, and the next she is stupidly walking right into his trap. And no one can be that klutzy. The story they fabricate at the end to explain things would strain the credulity of even the most naive parents.
The bigger issues are a little more serious, and are interrelated. The biggest problem, of course, is Bella’s unhealthy obsession with Edward and her instant willingness to give up her life, her soul, her very self just to be with his gorgeousness forever. How disturbing is that? She loses herself entirely in her lust (not love) for him, and though there are hints here and there that this isn’t good (she calls herself “pathetic,” he says their relationship is not healthy, etc.), none of these objections are given any weight in the behavior of the characters. It’s bad, sure, but it’s a good bad.
Edward doesn’t love Bella for herself. (Admittedly, that would be hard to do; as one friend put it, Bella is a shell for the reader to fill with herself — giving Bella very little personality of her own.) He is drawn to her on a physical level, by a primitive desire for the scent she has. Their entire relationship is predicated on his desire to kill her; he can’t stay away not because he cares for her as a person, but because he has a physical need for her. The sad thing is that this is touted as romantic, and young girls want that. They want to be simply the object of a man’s physical desire, and think that somehow this will fulfill their need for love. But lust — blood or otherwise — is not love.
Add to that the graphic descriptions of sexual desire, and you have a real problem with young girls absorbing this stuff. Sure, Edward and Bella don’t have relations, but they might as well for some of the descriptions Meyer gives. I’m amazed she has no shame about writing such explicit scenes and offering them up for the reading diet of young girls. And Bella is not chaste out of morality or self-preservation; she refrains because it’s “Edward’s rule.” *sigh*
Edward gets a lot of flak for being the classic abusive boyfriend, but Bella shouldn’t get off so easily as a helpless victim. She is very assertive about getting what she wants; it’s just that what she wants is selfish, stupid, and dangerous. But anyone who complains about Edward being controlling and selfish (and he is) should also realize Bella’s complicity with the situation, and indeed her insistence that it should be so. I think a lot of young girls will go into life expecting their boyfriends to be completely obsessed with them as Edward is with Bella… and when that doesn’t happen, they will wonder what they are doing wrong.
And now, having said all this, why did I read and even manage to partially enjoy this book? My main objective in reading it was to build credibility in criticizing it; I have some younger friends who love it, and I want to be able to discuss its problematic themes with them. I also enjoy fantasy and some vampire mythology. And I do think Meyer has managed to create an interesting idea in vampires choosing to become “vegetarians” and not drink the blood of humans. There’s a hint of redemption there, a theme I love. But it is, of course, a redemption brought about by those who need it rather than by an outside power. Edward and the Cullens are redeeming themselves, not being redeemed. The sacrifice they make is significant; they are constantly denying themselves the human blood they crave. But their strength to resist this temptation comes from within and from one another. Meyer belongs to the Church of Latter-Day Saints (Mormonism); her theology should not be conflated with mainstream Christianity.
Feminists rail against the book for the way Bella’s weakness and insipidity are presented as virtues, and I have to agree with them to a point. But one thing Meyer does get right (quite accidentally, I am sure) is the idea of the man being stronger so that he can be the protector. This does not automatically make the woman weak, helpless, and stupid, of course (this is where the feminists and I part company). Bella and Edward have different roles in their relationship, and though these roles are terribly skewed, at least they are different.
And there really is something entertaining in the story, despite its many flaws. I want to see where Meyer takes the mythology, if she does any real research to add more depth to her world. I’m curious about the other vampires and how their stories will play out. I seem to be able to successfully ignore the constant descriptions of Edward’s beauty and Bella’s pathetic, selfish obsession, and so I think I will carry on with the rest of the series if I can stomach it. I reserve the right to drop it, but we’ll see how it goes.
More mature readers may enjoy parts of this book as I did, but it does not deserve the hype it has received, and it’s worrisome that so many young girls are allowing this story to shape their ideas of romance. I’m enjoying it, but with very mixed feelings. Mostly I’m just curious how it will all end. It would be nice if someone would rewrite the book to remove the bad characters, weak plot points, disturbing romantic ideas, and those pesky dust moats. Though perhaps the whole thing would be less entertaining without those very problems… Hmm.
Book 2: New Moon
What struck me about this book was the introduction of more dangerous relational dynamics, in addition to the issues that I explore in depth in my Twilight review. It seems that Meyer is going to search out new problematic ideas for each of her books and emphasize them each in turn as positive — or at least acceptable — ways of behaving.
The plot of this installment is a little less known than that of the first book, so briefly: Bella and Edward break up because Jasper almost kills Bella when she cuts her finger while opening birthday presents. Edward realizes that he is not good for her and ends the relationship. The Cullens move away and Bella falls apart. She has horrible nightmares and goes through each day like a zombie, trying to keep the pain at bay. She begins hallucinating, hearing Edward’s voice when she does dangerous things, and so she starts doing them more often just so she can feel closer to him (fantastic role model for young women right there). During this time she becomes friends with Jacob Black, who turns out to be a werewolf. Of course Jacob is in love with her, and because she feels warmed by his presence, Bella leads him on.
Meyer often makes her characters do uncharacteristic things because it serves the plot. But the characters are much weaker for it. The explanation of why Bella does not commit suicide is completely unconvincing; Bella says that she never considers it because she owes too much to her parents. Please! When you are in that kind of distress, you aren’t worried about who you’re going to hurt when you are looking for relief. If Bella was as bad off as Meyer wants us to think, she would have killed herself. Without Edward, there is nothing worth living for, in Bella’s mind. But then we wouldn’t have two more best-selling books, would we?
It also does not make sense that Bella would be hesitant about marrying Edward simply because her mom doesn’t think anyone should get married before age 30 — yet Bella is willing to make an eternal commitment to vampirehood for his sake. So she won’t marry him yet, but she is going to take an irrevocable step so she can be with him for the rest of their existence, which is pretty much forever? Weak.
One of the most disturbing parts of this book was the character of Emily, the fiancée of Sam Uley who is the alpha werewolf. Sam became a werewolf without knowing what was happening to him… and one night he was too close to Emily when he lost his temper. He gouged her left side, raking his claws down her face and leaving her with horribly disfiguring scars all down her face. But Meyer portrays their relationship as a very loving one; the past is all forgiven. The physical abuse is just a regretful memory that Sam has to deal with occasionally. Emily is happy to stay with the man who disfigured her so horribly in a moment of anger… just like so many women in physically abusive relationships. Oh, he was so sorry, he bowed and begged and felt just awful. But the woman is the one who wears the scars. I felt a little sick about how that was portrayed. What kind of message is that sending to young girls? As long as he’s sorry afterwards, you should stay with your physically abusive guy?
Fewer people will probably agree with me on this next point, but I was uncomfortable with the idea that a girl can have a male best friend. Jacob demonstrates the point by not being able to “just be friends” with Bella — but Bella is somehow able to not return his feelings. It’s because of the Incomparable Edward, of course. But there are no Incomparable Edwards in real life (thank goodness), and I think most girls would develop romantic feelings in a “best friend” relationship like that. I think your lover should be your best friend anyways. It doesn’t make sense to me to compartmentalize like that.
Again, just as in Twilight, I did enjoy the plot of the warring vampires and werewolves, with all the history behind their unusual relationship. The Volturi were fascinating too. I liked this book less than the first one, mostly because the plot was not as interesting and it left me even less enthused about starting the third book. I wanted a break from Meyer’s mediocre writing and the unhealthy relationships of her inconsistent characters. I have since started the third book and will probably be finishing the series soon. I want to get this over with! I’m enjoying it, but I’m not. It’s hard to enjoy a series with so many fundamental problems, and yet the idea is appealing enough to fantasy fans to make it worth picking up. I don’t see myself ever rereading, though.
Book 3: Eclipse
Just when you think there are no more sick and twisted situations left for Stephenie Meyer to explore in her books, she pulls another one right out of the air and plops it down in the middle of what could otherwise be a decent story. Eclipse had the potential to be one of the better installments in the series until it became engorged with too much meandering, too little plot, and some authorial fantasies that I would much rather not have known about.
In this story Bella is finally graduating high school and playing a neutral Switzerland to her two crazed lovers, Edward and Jacob. There are reports of strange killings taking place in nearby Seattle, murders with no attempt to hide the remains. All the signs point to an army of newborn vampires… created by an older vampire with a very definite purpose in mind. Bella, of course. Could you have any doubts? I couldn’t, though it took the characters about 400 pages to realize what was going on. *sigh*
Again, there are little problematic things in the relationships — with some rather huge issues alongside. Edward is smug about forging Bella’s name on her college applications; he even says he can write her name better than she can herself. There is the disrespect to Charlie… the way that Bella continues to use and abuse Jacob… the way that the Cullens hold Bella against her will, for her “protection”… the exploding physical passion that Bella describes in excruciating detail every time Edward kisses her. Ugh.
In the first two books all the smaller problems are accompanied by an issue that is not small in the least. Eclipse is no different. This one occurs when Edward and Jacob have smuggled Bella away from the coming attack and they are all in a tent during the cold night. Bella is so cold — of course — that Jacob is forced to curl up next to her inside the sleeping bag to keep her warm. Edward, being a vampire, cannot warm Bella as his skin is always cold to the touch. What follows is a disgusting revelation, an almost embarrassing exposure of Meyer’s deepest fantasies. She places Bella in close physical proximity with a young man who loves her ardently, with another lover glowering nearby, forced to watch. And the two boys have a conversation, while Bella drifts on the edge of sleep. Oh, to have two such handsome, perfect boys in love with you! To be forced to do such a thing. I was a little sick after reading this chapter. The whole Jacob-as-a-space-heater scene confirmed it beyond a doubt: there is something seriously warped about Meyer and her view of relationships. This scene exposes something very personal about her, and it isn’t a pretty sight. Did Meyer not realize how much she was exposing?
I did enjoy some parts of this book. Rosalie’s back story was pretty interesting and it was nice to have her persona explained. It was also fascinating to learn more about Jasper. Really, the best things about this series are the other characters and the mythology. I also enjoyed the introduction of Seth Clearwater, a minor character who nevertheless manages to be far more interesting and vital than the main players.
Bella is, of course, still determined to sacrifice herself and become a vampire so she can stay with Edward forever. It was less annoying in this book though, probably because it’s become more of an accepted fact by now and Meyer isn’t reminding us in every other sentence of Edward’s gorgeousness and Bella’s utter absorption in him. It’s sick and wrong… okay, let’s move on, what’s happening in the rest of the story? I can understand how a lot of readers can’t get past Bella and Edward, though.
Again Meyer makes her characters do uncharacteristic things to make the story work. I have to laugh at how Edward just suddenly tells Bella, a few chapters before it’s important, that he no longer wants her blood. Apparently it was so awful when he thought she was dead that he would never desire anything that could bring that about. Convenient, isn’t it?
Really, this book is just more of the same. New Moon and Eclipse are both pretty weak in the plot department. Some things do get resolved and explained, but there is so much padding it’s hard to remember the essential things. One thing does stand out, though: the disturbing, even repulsive relationship dynamics that are apparently a very personal part of Meyer’s erotic imagination. Blech.
Book 4: Breaking Dawn
I’m going to buck tradition and start off by saying that I think I actually enjoyed this book for the most part. Before you gasp and gape at such an admission, be assured I’m still going to rip apart all its stupid/sick elements. But there is a little more to like here, toward the end of the book at least.
Bella and Edward finally get married. The plan is that they will attend Dartmouth College in the fall, if Bella — as a newborn vampire with unpredictable and strong desires — can stand to be around humans without killing them. But of course this doesn’t happen… on their tropical-island honeymoon, Bella gets pregnant.
There are two seriously disturbing issues in this book. First, Edward leaves horrible bruises all over Bella from their lovemaking. He feels awful but Bella, of course, just eats it up and even enjoys it. Apparently it’s okay if he hurts you so long as he’s what you want, right? Nothing else matters.
The other big problem is when Edward offers to let Bella bear Jacob’s children, if she will only let them abort Edward’s child that is slowly killing her from the inside out. If Bella wants babies, she must have them at whatever cost. How twisted is that offer? And let’s just kill the baby we’ve made because it’s convenient for us to do so. That makes it okay, right? The relationships in this book are really sickmaking. I don’t care that Meyer tries to straighten them all out by having Jacob imprint on Bella’s daughter later. That makes it even worse! The whole thing is just banal.
Another issue, and one that has run through the entire series, is the graphic descriptions of sexual desire, so incredibly unrealistic and inappropriate for young girls to be absorbing. If raging physical desire sweeps through your entire being at a simple kiss, you have bigger problems than vampirehood. Why are girls as young as eleven and twelve reading these books? They aren’t old enough to realize that this is all fantasy, and fantasy of a dangerous breed. Many older readers may not be able to make that distinction either. I think these books are setting up young women for a lifetime of disappointment; nothing and no one can ever live up to Meyer’s ridiculous fantasies.
Once more the characters are weakened by being forced to fit the plot rather than the other way around. Bella’s father Charlie’s unwilling, uncomfortable acceptance of the supernatural does not ring true. Meyer is trying to sew up two completely different worlds and it just doesn’t work.
But as I said, I did find the second half of this book quite interesting. The strategic plans for negotiating with the Volturi, all of Carlisle’s friends gathered from around the globe to stand witness that Renesmee is not a dread “immortal child,” and the final confrontation made for an absorbing finish. I’m surprised that a lot of Twilight fans rate this fourth book as the worst of the bunch; though I was bothered by several things, it seemed that this one had the most cohesive and interesting plot, despite being a bit too long.
For this article, I’ve tried to dredge up any redemptive elements or accidental reflections of divine truth that might have made their way into the Twilight Saga. They’re hard to come by. I think the theological stance of the stories is revealed in a short conversation Edward and Bella once have about his soul. She thinks God will accept him because he has forsaken the traditional vampire diet of human blood, though he thirsts for it constantly; Edward doesn’t think it’s enough, and pretty much considers himself damned forever. And that’s all we ever get… Meyer never again revisits this fascinating theological question.
This is the real danger in these stories, beyond even the relationship issues I’ve dissected. And they are so bad they can distract us from the underlying issue, which is subtle. It’s not what’s there in blazing lights, but what isn’t there. It’s this: theology, morality, and eternity are never the important things. Bella and Edward live in the now of physical passion, which will never end for them since vampires are immortal. They live to gratify themselves. God doesn’t matter (why would He?) and even the idea of eventually going to Hell has little weight next to the immediacy of physical desire. Sex, disguised as relationships, has edged out all other contenders to be the deity of choice in the Twilight Saga. And so many readers are worshiping at that altar.
Overall, I’m glad I read the Twilight books. I can criticize them knowledgeably and — I hope — point out their problems to young readers. The series can be enjoyed for some of its characters and its mythology, I’ll admit that. But with the abusive/disturbing relationships presented in a favorable light, the mediocre writing, the weak plotting, and the applauded idolatry, I could never recommend them. There are so many better books out there.
Amy Timco is a committed Christian, voracious reader, incorrigible booksale bum, professional editor, moderator at the NarniaWeb.com forum, and happy wife.
Catch up with her other book reviews at her LibraryThing profile.