Friday, November 2, 2012

Book Review: Twilight

            As we begin the month of November, I thought I’d do something special.  As most people are probably aware, this is the month when Breaking Dawn Part 2 will make it’s public debut in movie theaters worldwide, therefore officially marking the end of the Twilight movies.  In commemoration of this event, I will use this month to review the Twlight saga in its entirety.  And just to make things clear from the get-go:  Yes, I’m a Twilight fan.  No, I’m not a crazy Twilight fan.  I don’t go around fantasizing about marrying Robert Patterson, wearing my Team Edward/Team Jacob T-shirt.  Ugh.  Don’t get me started on that whole stupid team thing.  Whoever initiated that just needs to be slapped silly.  I’m sorry, but it’s true.  I’ll go into more about why I have such an intense dislike for the team angle later on, but not now.  
            Before I began, I’m going to go into a bit about how I was introduced to this story.  I remember thinking, when I first heard about Twilight, something along the lines of ‘oh, it’s just another vampire story. I don’t wanna read a vampire story.’  Now, I’ve never been that into vampires, and I rarely watched vampire movies.  Up to that point, I’d only watched three movies that primarily featured vampires.  The first was the 1992 movie, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I mainly enjoyed because it was hilarious and a fun flick.  Apart from that, there was Van Helsing with Hugh Jackman and the 1992 version of Bram Stoker's Dracula, the latter I only watched because an old classmate of mine brought it over, and I really didn’t find it very interesting anyway.  So, since I wasn’t all that into vampire stuff, I didn’t really give the Twilight series a second glance.  However, as time went on, I started hearing the public reactions to the books, which were mainly split down the middle.  Some people voiced their hatred for the books while others praised it.  Like fruitcake, you either loved it or hated it. There didn’t seem to be much of a middle ground. 
            Finally, my closest friend started to read the Twilight novels and became obsessed.  This basically convinced me to check them out for myself, because the friend in question had always hated reading.  She’s much better about it now, but at the time, she was not that into books.  In other words, if my friend liked a book, it was probably worth looking at.  I ended up getting the first book in the Twilight saga for my birthday, but I still put off reading it, mostly because I was already in the middle of another book at the time.  Needless to say, when my friend heard I hadn’t even started reading my copy of Twilight, she was quite miffed at me.  Thankfully, my family had a trip planned on the near horizon, and we were supposed to drive across four states to attend my grandfather’s 70th birthday celebration.  I promised myself I would take advantage of the trip to at least start reading Twilight, and finally began the first chapter while waiting around at my aunt’s house for the time of the party.  Well, that proved to be a mistake, because after a while, I could not put it down long enough to really engage in small talk during the party.  In the end, it took me about four days to finish the first book.  It probably would have taken me three, but the sun went down during the car ride back home, so I could no longer read the pages and had to stop for the night.
            So, now that I’ve explained how I got into the book, I suppose it’s time for me to start explaining about the book itself, and why I ended up liking it.  And for the record, these next few reviews will only focus on the books, and not the movies.  Mostly because I’m not willing to go over all the inconsistencies and head-smack moments that exist in the films.  Despite being a Twilight fan, I will admit that the Twilight films do have their flaws, especially the first Twilight movie, which completely botched the whole scene where Edward confesses to being a vampire.  (And don’t get me started on how they left out the blood typing scene, which was one of my personal favorite moments from the first book, and instead gave us this random field trip to some greenhouse, something that never happened at any point in the books.)
Anyway, rambling aside, in the first book’s opening, we’re immediately introduced to 17-year-old Isabella Swan, who prefers to be called Bella.  Now, Bella has lived in the warm, sunny town of Phoenix, Arizona with her mother ever since her parents’ divorce years prior.  Bella’s mother, Renee, from what I can tell, never really grew up and lacked what it took to be a responsible mother-figure to Bella.  This resulted in the roles of mother-and-daughter to be reversed, and for a long time, Bella’s been the one who had to take care of her mother.
As the book opens, we learn that Renee has recently remarried, this time to a minor-league baseball player called Phil.  Phil’s job requires him to travel a lot and Bella, fulfilling her life-long role as caretaker to her immature mother, makes the decision to go live with her father, police chief Charlie, in order to allow Renee to travel with Phil.  Since Twilight is written entirely in Bella’s point-of-view, the reader is left with no question that Bella is not pleased with the idea of living with her father, and I can understand her discontent with her decision.  After living most of her life in sunny Phoenix, starting a new life in the town that Charlie lives in has got to lead to some major culture shock.  Charlie, as we’re told almost immediately after starting Twilight, lives and works in Forks, Washington, a small town in the Olympic Peninsula, which is described as the rainiest place in the continental U.S..  I suppose this could be compared to moving from Florida to Alaska; practically anyone would be reluctant to make such a drastic change.  But Bella has grown accustomed to putting her mother’s needs before her own, so she goes through with the move, albeit reluctantly.
Bella isn’t given much time to settle into her new life with Charlie before being thrown into the mix, because she has to start school the day after her arrival.  At her new school, she’s immediately the center of attention with the other kids.  New students are a rare occurrence at Forks High School, so the addition of Bella is an exciting new novelty, particularly to the male students.  During Bella’s first day, she develops an instant interest in the mysterious Cullens, the foster children of a local doctor and his wife.  The Cullen siblings are all described as being impossibly beautiful with pale white skin, but have clearly been ostracized by most of the other students at the school.  Among the Cullen siblings is Edward Cullen, who turns out to be in Bella’s new Biology class.  However, from the moment they meet in Biology, Edward displays an instant and seemingly unfounded hatred for Bella, and spends the entire class period glaring at her.  Later on, Bella even overhears Edward talking with the school’s receptionist, trying to find a way to get out of their shared Biology class.  When Edward finds that he can’t drop the class, he disappears from school for a period of time, leaving Bella understandably confused and upset over how anyone could hate her so quickly.  Edward reappears at school a week later, and suddenly appears to have warmed up to her.  As if the sudden 180 wasn’t surprising enough, the day after Edward’s return to school, he ends up saving Bella’s life from an out-of-control van in the school parking lot under impossible circumstances, including stopping the van with his bare hands.  After the accident, Bella is determined to find out how Edward managed to save her life.  However, she does not have much luck until she and her school friends visit a local beach.  While there, she meets up with Jacob Black, the son of Charlie’s oldest friend, who lives on the nearby Quileute reservation.  Bella manages to convince Jacob to tell her an old Quileute legend that reveals that the entire Cullen family are actually vampires who feed on the blood of animals instead of humans.
As the story progresses, Bella informs Edward that, even though she knows what he is, she truly does not care, and the pair gradually form a romantic, yet forbidden, relationship.  Unfortunately, the day after they confess their love for one another, a nomadic group of vampires comes to visit the Cullens.  One of the nomadic vampires, James, immediately sets his sights on Bella, with the intention of hunting her for sport.  To keep her safe, Edward is fully prepared to take Bella as far away from Forks as possible, but in the end, it’s decided that the Cullens will go with a plan that Bella comes up with.  While the rest of the Cullens lead James on a wild goose chase by creating a false trail, Bella heads off to Phoenix in order to hide in plain sight, with Alice and Jasper accompanying her for additional protection.  Unfortunately, the plan goes awry when James finds a way to outsmart them and makes a secret phone call to Bella, telling her that he’s holding her mother, Renee, hostage.  Bella, not willing to allow her mother to die for her, gives herself up to James, realizing too late that James was only bluffing.  Right when James is about to kill Bella, Edward, who realized what Bella had done, catches up with them with his family in tow, arriving just in time to save Bella’s life.
In the aftermath of James’ attack, in which Bella’s injuries slowly heal, Edward and Bella begin to confront a vital issue in their relationship: their future together.  While Edward is adamant about Bella living out her life as a mortal human, Bella wishes to become a vampire as well, so she can remain with Edward forever.  The first book ends with them both tentatively agreeing to postpone the issue for the time being, despite knowing that neither one is willing to change their mind.
So, you’re probably asking yourself now why I liked this book to begin with.  Well, I admit that this book may not be for everyone, but if you, like me, are a sucker for stories filled with romantic interactions, then chances are you will enjoy it, because the scenes between Edward and Bella in the second half of the book are so romantic and sweet, I can just melt reading about them.  Bear in mind that I am far from a fangirl who will squee and swoon over a good-looking, smooth-talking guy, either real or fictional, but if I ever found a guy who would say half those things to me while still being genuine about it, I’d never let him out of my sight.  In addition, the book gains a few points in my book for the gradual progression that leads to the romance.  Edward and Bella don’t immediately start off as a couple, and spend a few chapters at odds with one another.  Yet, even under their animosity, you can still see their growing attraction.  And that is one of my favorite romantic scenarios, in which the two spend a while circling around one another while slowly coming closer.  Nothing turns me off a story like the immediate ‘Hi!  You’re cute.  I love you.’ type of romance.  Needless to say, that’s one of the reasons why I dislike such fairy tales as Snow White and Cinderella.
Something that’s good to keep in mind, however, is that Stephenie Meyer goes against all the long-accepted vampire lore for the vampires in her novels.  In the Twilight universe, all those stories about vampires disintegrating in the sunlight and sleeping in coffins during the day are nothing more than myths.  No, vampires in the Twilight saga actually lack the ability to sleep, and while they are unharmed by sunlight, they still have to avoid it in public.  The reason for this is that direct sunlight makes vampire skin sparkle, as if diamonds were embedded in their bodies.  Personally, I think that this is what turned many people off, because they found the whole concept of ‘sparkly vamps’ laughable.  But I say the only concrete law about vampires in literature is that they’re required to live off blood.  Vampires are fictional creatures, so apart from the whole blood-drinking thing, you can pretty much do whatever you want with them.  (It probably doesn’t hurt that S.M. actually tried to give a physiological reason why vampire skin shines in the sun.  Can anyone find an actual explanation as to why traditional vampires burn to a crisp in daylight? ‘Cause I’ve never heard of one.)  Besides, if all literary vampires stayed true to the original source material, they’d probably all look something like Nosferatu, and all vampire romance novels would turn into some sort of Phantom of the Opera knockoff.
Now, on to the characters themselves.  I acknowledge that there’s a lot of hate for Bella, who some accuse of not having any redeeming qualities, but I don’t agree with that assessment.  The books are written in Bella’s point of view, so we see her as she sees herself.  Frankly, Bella doesn’t seem to see herself as a person worth mentioning. She doesn’t spend a lot of time analyzing herself, so we’re probably not expected to see her as a unique, well-developed character right off the bat.  Also, she apparently suffers from some deep-rooted self-esteem issues, which appear to last through most of the Twilight saga.  So with her, we’re required to read between the lines.  For example, in multiple times within the saga, whenever some danger arises that threatens her life, she spends most of her time only worrying about the ones who are able to protect her from said danger.  Take the ordeal with James within the first book: instead of getting scared by the fact that a sadistic vampire is after her blood, she constantly worries about something happening to Edward and the rest of the Cullen clan as they attempt to take James down, indicating that she values the lives of her loved ones more than she values her own.
As for Edward, he’s fueled by complexity and turmoil.  Before meeting Bella, he had a near-century worth of practice in resisting human blood, so he has very little difficulty in being around the human students at the school.  In addition, because of his ability to read the minds of the people around him, he has grown rather jaded with life, particularly when the majority of the humans around him are predictable and oftentimes shallow and self-centered.  But then he meets Bella, whose blood smells far more appealing to him than the blood of other humans, something that threatens to be his downfall.  However, no matter how hard he tries, he cannot ‘hear’ any of Bella thoughts.  Intrigued by the mystery of her silent mind, Edward places all his self-control into resisting the smell of Bella’s blood in an attempt to figure out a way to unravel the mystery that keeps Bella’s thoughts a secret from him.  As time goes on, his growing love for Bella helps strengthen that self-control, preventing him from feeding on her blood.  At the same time, that same love presents him with another problem that’s probably just as serious.  Because of his nature as a vampire, he knows that Bella’s life would be in danger if he acted on his feelings for her.  This knowledge is intensified by the fact that, like Bella, he also suffers from a multitude of self-esteem issues, which leads him into hating his own existence on a number of occasions.  For all these reasons, he’s constantly fighting with himself, trying to force himself to keep Bella at arms length in order to protect her from himself, even while he knows that not being with her will figuratively kill him.  Once he finds out that Bella knows what he is and doesn’t even care, his inner turmoil becomes even more complex, as he’s now elated and horrified at the same time.
Most of the other characters in the book are only secondary characters, and are basically flat and one-dimensional.  Sadly, we don’t learn much about the other members of the Cullen family in the first book, apart from the personal past of the Cullen family’s founder, Carlisle, but that’s remedied later on in the series.  Bella’s dad, Charlie, seems to be an okay guy, but like his ex-wife, Renee, he doesn’t seem to be very good at being a father-figure for Bella.  While we do see how much he cares for his daughter at some points, such as in the aftermath of the accident that almost takes Bella’s life in the beginning of the book, Charlie spends most of his time outside of work either fishing or watching some game on TV.  At this point in the Twilight saga, Charlie is, more or less, the dopey dad.  Bella’s classmates each seem to fill in different stereotypical roles as well.  For example, the character Mike is the clueless suitor who mistakes the kindness of the main female for mutual interest.  Lauren is the typical stuck-up snob who immediately hates Bella right off the bat just for being instantly popular with the rest of the student body.  Jessica is the fair-weather friend who immediately chums up to Bella, but can’t always hide the falseness behind the friendship, especially when Edward begins to act on his growing feelings for Bella.  The last of the main group of secondary characters is Angela, who is the personification of the true friend.  Throughout the book, and the series, she’s probably the only one of Bella’s mortal friends who is able to notice and understand Bella’s true moods and feelings.
The last of the characters we meet in Twilight who don’t just serve as background/placeholder characters is Jacob Black, Bella’s Quileute friend.  By the end of the book, it just seems as if Jacob is the basic friend of the family with a schoolboy crush on Bella, and that his only true role was providing Bella with the vital clue to Edward’s true identity.  And in this first book in the Twilight saga, that pretty much is Jacob’s role.  However, Jacob plays a much bigger part in the remainder of the series.  I’ll go into that a bit more in my review of New Moon.
Finally, there’s the book’s structure itself, as well as the author.  I don’t claim to be a professor of literature or anything like that.  I don’t typically go around analyzing the books I read to death.  I read books for the stories they tell.  On the other hand, I admit that Stephenie Meyer’s name might not one day be included among the authors whose books have survived the test of time, (Shakespeare,  Hans Christian Andersen and Mark Twain to name a few) but whoever said that it had to be?  Not every book has to be a classic piece of literature.  Personally, I think she told a pretty good story.  I don’t see why it should matter that the books are fairly easy to read, and that the hardest word in the first book is ‘irrevocably,’ a word I can’t recall coming across before reading Twilight.  If I wanted to read a book with words I didn’t recognize, I’d probably be reading something like David Copperfield or Little Women.  And yes, I do recall seeing at least one typo while reading Twilight, but the woman is human.  Humans make mistakes.  That’s why we invented the eraser.
In closing, Twilight may not be a good book for everyone.  I’ve seen quite a few people say that the Twilight saga is aimed at young tween girls, and I can see where those people come from.  But if you enjoy reading books with romance in it, then you might want to give Twilight a chance, because as long as you go in with an open mind, you may just end up liking it, too.

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