The Twilight saga begins as a breath of fresh air in a literary form traditionally consumed with death. It ends with a gasp as it tries to reinvent, to quite literally redeem the horror of that death.
I began reading Book 1, Twilight, during a vacation trip to Florida in June. Never mind that my job revolves around reviewing and analyzing entertainment. This wasn't work, I told myself—and my wife. This was just a good book that was getting rave reviews for its restraint and insight. At least by young adult novel standards.
As I sank my teeth into the first few hundred pages of this new vampire chronicle, I was impressed. It was restrained. It was insightful. It was interesting and engrossing to get behind the eyes of the just-turned-17 Isabella Swan as she grapples with her insecurities and moves from Phoenix to Washington state to live with her dad. But my free-time reading gradually began morphing into an intriguing and important writing assignment. Intriguing because Bella is something of an archetypal teen caught up in a preternatural adventure. Important because the Twilight books, written by Mormon wife and mother Stephenie Meyer, are zipping off store shelves and into the hands of teen fans at an astounding pace. So fast, in fact, that Meyer is being hailed as the new J.K. Rowling, and the first movie based on them has already been created (and is slated for a Nov. 21 release).
Bella and the Beastie
Bella's mom, long divorced from Bella's dad, wants to start traveling with her new beau. So it's off to her dad's place in Forks, Wash., for Bella, who hates the cold, hates the rain and hates the school she's destined to attend.
She hates all that until she meets hunky-but-never-tanned classmate Edward Cullen. Then, it's let it rain, let it rain, let it rain, for all she cares, because his chilly touch melts her heart like ice cream at the equator.
As interested as I'd become in the inner workings of Bella's brain—and you do spend most of the saga occupying her head—I began to notice something that bothered me. Bella is more than a little obsessive. And she is critical of herself to a fault. At school, as she falls for Edward, she begins to see him as the only light in a dark world that seems to get dimmer and dimmer as she gazes at what she imagines to be his brilliance. She longs to be with him every second of every day. She dreads the, ironically, sunny days when he'll invariably skip school and she won't see him.
She quickly becomes enslaved by the idea of the two of them spending eternity together, a concept she doesn't yet fully appreciate.
The reason Edward misses sunny days at school, you see, is because he's a vampire, and vampires never get along with the sun very well. Edward and the rest of the Cullens he calls family aren't afraid of the sun as so many vampires in other stories are. Its rays don't reduce them to ash. But its light does tend to sparkle off their cold, white skin, giving them the appearance of angels ... or maybe Elvis impersonators. People would talk, so they stay where it's cloudy. Hence, their location in Forks, Wash.
But back to Bella's enduring crush. She won't see reason or listen to logic even after she learns Edward's secret. And she won't let anyone, not even him, talk her out of her "need" for him. She muses, "I refused to be convinced to fear him, no matter how real the danger might be."
She's not kidding. All the way through the very last page of the very last book (there are four in all), Bella never takes a single step back. She paints the colors of her existence, her very soul, onto his alabaster skin, asking him first for this world, then the next one, too. It's her obsession that drives her to demand he turn her into the same sort of creature he is. It's her vanity that makes her want it done now.
Consumed as she is with young love and the unblinking conviction that as a human she's nothing more than an awkward ugly duckling, she not only refuses to let anything or anyone stand between her and Edward, but also her self-determined destiny of vampiric perfection and immortality. Not her family. Not her friends. Not her life. Not even her soul—when Edward attempts to convince her that becoming a vampire will doom her to eternity without hope of salvation. "Compared to the fear that he didn't want me, this hurdle—my soul—seemed almost insignificant," she thinks. And then, a few pages later she says to Edward, "So let's both just be hopeful, all right? Not that it matters. If you stay, I don't need heaven."
He returns the favor of her obsession, even while urging her to stay human, pledging his eternal devotion to her fragile form. But then he ruins everything (from my perspective, not hers) by expressing his commitment to find a way to die too when she does. "You do realize that I'll die eventually, right?" Bella questions Edward. "I'll follow after as soon as I can," he replies.
Living to Die, Dying to Live
It's not that the subject of life, death and eternity is given short shrift in these books. Especially in the second one, New Moon, large segments are devoted to the discussion of whether vampires are indeed eternally damned the way most myths indicate.
Speaking of his human father's spiritual devotion, Carlisle, Edward's vampire dad of sorts, says, "I didn't agree with my father's particular brand of faith. But never, in the nearly four hundred years now since I was born, have I ever seen anything to make me doubt whether God exists in some form or the other. Not even the reflection in the mirror." That's an incongruous, yet strangely encouraging sentiment. He's convinced that even those things that are unseen and unknown in our world can reflect, however imperfectly, our Creator's hand.
Edward, however, doesn't believe in what he would think of as children's stories, and considers his own soul lost to the darkness. Thus, he tries, very hard, for a great many pages, to convince Bella to reconsider her death wish.
She does not. And he eventually gives up.
Before he fully resigns himself to Bella's self-appointed fate, though, he does attempt to remove himself from her life in order to spare it. And, indeed, he's consistently portrayed as the model of self-restraint, going so far as to protect the humans around him by drinking animal blood.
He resists temptation.
But she embraces it.
And she—our heroine—spends a fair amount of time tamping down her conscience to make things work out the way she wants them to.
"I curled into a tight ball. No, Edward wasn't a killer," she tries to convince herself in New Moon. "Even in his darker past, he'd never been a murderer of innocents, at least. But what if he had been? What if, during the time that I'd known him, he'd been just like any other vampire? What if people had been disappearing from the woods, just like now? Would that have kept me away from him? I shook my head sadly. Love is irrational, I reminded myself. The more you loved someone, the less sense anything made."
Pages later, she's giving in to the idea that if she puts herself in danger, she'll feel closer to her temporarily out-of-the-picture man, er, vampire. She crashes a motorcycle, pushes her luck in a dangerous neighborhood and even jumps off a high cliff into the ocean, hoping this ultimate life-endangering stunt will stir her comforting memories of Edward's care for her.
... And Baby Makes None
I'm not the only one who's noticed that Bella may not be as good a role model as she at first seems. "Is this Anne Rice lite?" writes sci-fi novelist Orson Scott Card in Time magazine. "Not in the eyes of the teenagers—and their mothers—who have embraced this book. But Stephenie Meyer's Twilight does raise some questions, and I've asked them. 'You really want your teenage daughter to live inside the story of a girl who lies to her parents, invites a boy to sleep in her bed and trusts him not to take advantage of her?'"
In another issue of Time, columnist Lev Grossman writes, "It is the rare vampire novel that isn't about sex on some level, and the Twilight books are no exception. What makes Meyer's books so distinctive is that they're about the erotics of abstinence. Their tension comes from prolonged, superhuman acts of self-restraint. There's a scene midway through Twilight in which, for the first time, Edward leans in close and sniffs the aroma of Bella's exposed neck. 'Just because I'm resisting the wine doesn't mean I can't appreciate the bouquet,' he says. 'You have a very floral smell, like lavender ... or freesia.' He barely touches her, but there's more sex in that one paragraph than in all the snogging in Harry Potter."
"I get some pressure to put a big sex scene in," Meyer says. "But you can go anywhere for graphic sex. It's harder to find a romance where they dwell on the hand-holding. I was a late bloomer. When I was 16, holding hands was just—wow."
It's a nice thought, but she must have abandoned it somewhere along the line, because everything changes in the last book, Breaking Dawn, when Bella and Edward get married, go on their honeymoon and spend scores of pages doing quite a bit more than just nuzzling.
Naturally, Bella becomes pregnant with Edward's vampire child.
I'll add that if it were up to Bella, marriage wouldn't have been part of the deal, either. She loathes the idea of submitting to the ancient institution, preferring the relative brevity of death to the agonizing eternity of matrimony. "I was sure that at least my mother—were I to tell her every detail of the truth—would be more strenuously opposed to me getting married than to me becoming a vampire," Bella thinks halfway through the third book, Eclipse. "I grimaced to myself as I imagined her horrified expression."
A Blood-Curdling Shriek of Agony
Sensuality isn't the only thing that builds as the books pile up. Occult references and violence do, too. It wasn't until I got to Eclipse's 258th page that I jotted down my first significant note about blood and gore.
"She fell to her knees at the blood drinker's feet and plunged the knife into her own heart. Blood spurted through the third wife's fingers and splashed against the Cold Woman."
But that sacrificial suicide was a trifle compared to what was in store. By the middle of the fourth book, all horror breaks loose, and blood and body parts explode everywhere:
"It was not just a scream, it was a blood-curdling shriek of agony. The horrifying sound cut off with a gurgle, and her eyes rolled back into her head. Her body twitched, arched in Rosalie's arms, and then Bella vomited a fountain of blood. ... Another gush of blood choked off what she was shrieking. He held her head up, desperately trying to clear her mouth so that she could breathe again. ... Her hand came down on Bella's stomach, and vivid red spouted out from where she pierced the skin. It was like a bucket being turned over, a faucet twisted to full."
A gang rape is once alluded to in Eclipse. As is Bella being taken advantage of by her best non-vampire friend, Jacob, who forces a kiss on her. "I grabbed at his face, trying to push it away, failing again," Bella narrates. "He seemed to notice this time, though, and it aggravated him. His lips forced mine open, and I could feel his hot breath in my mouth." (It doesn't matter much in this context that Jake's not fully human, either—that he's a kind of shape-shifting werewolf.)
As for the spiritual realm that's risen to the surface in these books, it starts with the idea of vampires and werewolves existing at all. It continues with references to such devilish creatures as incubi and succubi. There's body-swapping, shape-shifting, telepathy, telekinesis, precognition, the ability to alter someone else's emotion or mental state using mind control, and even causing physical pain via mental aggressiveness.
In the small comfort category, Meyer rarely writes profanities or obscenities, restricting them to sporadic uses of "p---," "d--n" and "h---."
... And They All Lived Happily Ever After
Ever skip to the last page and read it first? Want to know how it all ends? Is there resolution given to Bella's omnipresent passions and desires? Is there pushback against her dangerous preoccupations? Does anybody learn any good lessons? I'll have to spoil a few plot points to answer those questions, but I don't see any way around it in a review like this that's designed to give you as much information as possible about a story's moral underpinnings. So here goes:
"This was really different. I was amazing now—to them and to myself," Bella muses dreamily after finally becoming what's known in these pages as a bloodsucker. "It was like I had been born to be a vampire. The idea made me want to laugh, but it also made me want to sing. I had found my true place in the world, the place I fit, the place I shined."
How did she get there? Pregnant with Edward's half-human, half-vampire baby, Bella dies during childbirth. She's brought back to undead life by Edward, who pumps her heart and limbs full of his venom.
And everybody lives happily ever after.
Sure, there's a big row with the ruling class of vamps known as the Volturi. But the new and improved Bella saves the day and then heads home with Edward for another all-night rendezvous. Life is therefore revived amid agony. Salvation is found through death. Bella is beautiful. She's powerful. She's in love.
"Bella, I just beheaded and dismembered a sentient creature not twenty yards away from you," Edward says to her after killing an attacking vampire. "That doesn't bother you?"
Bella just shrugs.
The books about her deserve more than that.