(Twilight series, book 1)
Rating - 3: worth reading once (borrow it from a library)
This is a great time to be reading young adult fiction. Most of the acclaimed adult literature is pretentious crap about people ruining their lives; many of the Newbery Award winners are the same story, only we'll set it in China this time, or make it about pottery!; but the top young adult books are really worth reading. We have great new writers like Stephenie Meyer and John Green. We have new ideas or interesting takes on old themes. We have styles that are readable and approachable, simple enough for a young audience but very worthwhile for an older audience.
Much like Sold or The Gospel According to Larry, this is a book that gives away the secret on the back cover. The author makes it a quarter of the way through the book before making it explicit; the advertising copy throws it into the first sentence. I think that takes something away from the book, so if you can take a recommendation without detail:
Read Twilight. The text flows smoothly and quickly, and you will soon find yourself well into the book. You know from the opening that the story is more than it appears, but the most important part is that the story is what it appears to be: a high school girl moves in with her father in a new town, and life is very different. She meets a boy. Antics ensue. Is that a trite summary? As I said, an interesting take on an old theme. It is done well.
If you are taking that recommendation, walk away now. There are about to be spoilers. Really, if you have never heard of Stephenie Meyer, this is a good time to hit the library and avoid asking anyone about the book. Don't read the back cover, just start on page one, and maybe come visit us again about half way through. Shoo. Last warning!
Are they gone?
Okay, now it is just us, and you may know that Stephenie Meyer has written a couple of very popular vampire novels for a teen audience. There, I said it. This is the first one.
Frankly, it is a sub-genre I would not normally touch, since it seems tainted by ... well, its members. It is too easy to combine a teen angst novel with a Harlequin romance, then give it a goth overtone and romanticize both death and (eternal) youth, include some fantasy and maybe magical realism, and what else can we throw in to make an unreadable series with a name like "Shadows of the Blood" or something? I refuse to Google that and see if I guessed an actual title. Anyway, too much industrially produced dreck that cannot decide whether suicide is more fun than being a teenager. If you are targeting a male audience, add some werewolves by the second or third book to get a better violence quotient.
This is not one of those books. Sure, the vampires are eternally young and beautiful, and they are more graceful and talented than anyone else. The angels are demons that walk among us, complete with a romantic hint of danger and tragedy. Anything that could be shlock elsewhere is here, but it is done well.
The exaggeration facilitates a common teen story. What matters is how Edward appears to Bella. In this case, she happens to be exactly right, that he is the most beautiful boy in the world, so we can skip the "what does she see in him" part, and the repetitions of his appearance fit perfectly naturally with an infatuated girl's perspective. She really is clumsy enough to trip on a flat floor, while he has unearthly grace. He never has morning breath, and he has the speed and power to play the white knight at a moment's notice. This is the standard narrative of the awkward teen and her too-perfect-for-words love: what does he see in her and oh how wonderful it is to fall in love. Only he really is all that, and there really is some irreducible quality that draws him to her.
Again, a standard teen story about how they are wrong for each other but cannot stay apart. Only in this case, he needs to be careful not to slip and eat her, while she is aging before his eternal eyes.
These are all pretty standard story pieces, but they are used well. The writing style is simple and stays out of the way of the story. This contrast is especially strong after reading Stephenson. You know how there are authors like Douglas Adams, in whose writing the most interesting and tone-setting parts are the digressions that develop some evocative or hilarious detail? And then there are others who you read for a brilliant turn of phrase, striking metaphor, witty dialogue, or some such trick of the writer's craft? Ms. Meyer is the opposite of that. She writes with a natural and flowing style, one that lays out the story and carries you through it. It is easy and pleasant to read. It is economical, and while this is not a short book, it does not have long and useless passages that you could sever without loss.
This is what Hemingway was supposed to be doing. Writing simply is not a matter of using short words and sentences. It is about having clear prose, the sort that you do not notice as you read it. The book is about the characters and the story, not the author. There are no mouthpiece characters.
The characters are surprisingly shallow, in retrospect. Most of the cast is sketched. They get a trait or two, and that is all they need. They are simple, one-dimensional characters from whom you do not really want more. Even Edward is fairly flat, despite being explicitly conflicted. It is a static sort of conflicted, a moth continuously hovering near the flame. He could be fairly summarized as, "He is attracted to Bella, but believes it would be better to resist it." Oh, and he is an immortal monster who wants to redeem his existence by living a moral life, but that is the same sort of resisting the call of the blood.
Mostly, we have Bella. Bella is a model of indirect characterization in the first-person perspective. Despite Edward's claims, she is a fairly ordinary teenage girl, and we live in her skin for several hundred pages. I could have used a bit more explanation of why several characters thought she stood out from, say, Jessica; they certainly seemed interchangeable enough to Mike, once he was pushed in that direction. Giving her an inexplicable smell and mental shield is specialness by fiat.
The story is strongest where it is shallowest. It is a potentially tragic love story done well. It breaks down a bit after the baseball game. The tracker breaks the flow of the story without improving to it. The climax does not work, and part of it happens off-camera, while giving us a portion of the story that comes through an inconsistently maintained haze of pain and/or drugs. That part of the book has a "hurry up and wait" feel that fails to mesh.
That would be why the book does not get a 4. In terms of return on investment for time spent, the smooth and easy writing provides an unenjoyable and untaxing time. You will probably get everything you need from the first read, however, and there would be sections to skim or skip on a return trip. Re-reading potential will be idiosyncratic. I am told of Bella-Edward fan rings out there to rival the Buffy shippers, and I imagine those readers will make several trips through the book. More power to them. That is the beauty of a library recommendation: if you love the book that much, you can still buy your own copy.
I have been entirely too critical of a rather good book. The problem of writing well is that you set the bar high; I can say a lot about great promise, whereas truly lousy books can be dismissed quickly and without nuance. Also, I only have so many ways to say it is written well without gratuitous thesaurus use. It is like good cooking -- you use common ingredients and techniques, but some people excel while others botch it. Ms. Meyer excels.
I was impressed to see that the movie rights had been sold before the book hit the shelves. Someone knew they had a hit on their hands. Little, Brown and Company seems to be a great publisher with some really exciting titles.