TwilightThe intriguing cover of Twilight has been calling to me from bookstore shelves for quite awhile. The hands reaching out of the darkness to offer that eternally forbidden and tainted fruit have an almost irresistible appeal. In one of my weaker moments, I gave in and bought it. Then I brought it home, put it on my shelf, and there it sat, untouched, for the entire spring. Until one night last week, when I came home and wanted nothing more than to lose myself in a book for a few hours.

It was a segment on NPR’s All Things Considered that got me thinking about it again. The books (Twilight is just the first in a series) have been wildly successful among young teenage women. There are a lot of people out there comparing her success to that of JK Rowling with the Harry Potter books. I wouldn’t go that far (her audience seems to be much narrower and I’m not sure her impact will be as lasting), and neither would the author. If you’re interested, the article can be found here.

The author is a devout Mormon and mother of three who created her tale based on a dream she had about a teenage girl and a vampire. The story centers around Bella, a teenage girl, and Edward, a vampire who refuses to drink human blood. This unlikely pair meet, fall in love, and carefully forge a romantic relationship despite the dangers inherent for both. Much of the book focuses on the precautions Edward must take and how careful he must be to control himself, lest he give into his longings and kill, hurt, or otherwise damage the woman he loves. Time magazine describes it as “the erotics of abstinence,” but I liked what Meyer had to say better:

“It’s really just my experience with the world and my experience with passion,” she explains. “When there is restraint involved, there’s so much more to it. I think a lot of fiction and movies these days, they’re really missing that beginning stage. They skip right past it.”

I found her thoughts intriguing and admirable. I mean, if you are going to make a book for teenagers about love, why not encourage them to savor every moment and not rush ahead. Enjoy the tension, the excitement, the longing. At the same time I also felt a little suspicious. Was there some hidden message about sex being evil or the dangers of women with sexual appetites? Was there a religious viewpoint being spread in these books? What type of woman was she presenting to these millions of teenagers? How about the messages to these young women about what a relationship is? And true love? Lots of questions. Only one way to find out the answers.

I started reading on Wednesday night (the book is 500 pages long) and by Saturday afternoon I had finished. I couldn’t put it down, didn’t want to stop reading, and simply devoured it. I felt instantly transported back to my life as a young teenager, filled with all the same hopes and dreams of love. Perhaps some of it was me relating to Bella, who felt awkward and unremarkable, and was dealing with moving from a large metropolitan area where she lived with her mom, to stay with her dad in a tiny town in Northwestern corner of the country. Whatever it was, it has been a long time since I read a book that captured me like that.

Yet, at the same time that my teenage brain was clicking with this supernatural romance, the analytical adult in me wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about this reaction. Was this the type of young female protagonist that I want teenage women to admire? True she was clever and independent and intelligent and brave, but she was also hopelessly uncoordinated and constantly hurting herself or stumbling into situations where she needed to be saved by Edward. And what about this protective, perfect Edward with his almost condescending need to keep Bella safe and his insistence that he knows what is best for her?

In examining the book more closely, things are not quite that black and white. Bella is strong and independent and lacking an essential awareness about her own extraordinariness (not uncommon in teenage women). Edward is arrogant (and not without reason–his capabilities and knowledge are superior to the humans around him), but he is also unsure how to progress with this bewildering and unique young woman. More than that, he knows what he is capable of and he is terrified of himself. Still, he cannot let her go. He is ancient and wise, and at the same time, nascent and unknowing.

There is still altogether too much of Edward saving Bella and way too much, “Edward is a perfect being” rhetoric from Bella. But this book is, after all, written entirely from Bella’s perspective, and I remember very much being a young woman in love. There are no shades of gray, only the overall impression that the boy or girl you love is perfect. I think it is to the author’s credit that she still manages to show he is not, even through the lens of Bella’s eyes. I’m still not convinced that this is a great series, but I will tell you it is a LOT of fun, and I will definitely be making my way through the rest of the books in anticipation of the release of book four this August. I’ll keep you posted on my impressions as they evolve.

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4 Responses to Twilight

  1. Ramona says:

    I agree the cover of Twilight is compelling, tho’ I doubt it is a book I will read.
    What I wish to comment about is the dichotomy of the ages – those of us who grew up believing in the fairy tales of Cinderella and being saved by the knight upon a white horse – only to face the reality of being single parent mothers not only saving ourselves but trying to raise our daughters to be self sufficient women and our sons to be caring, nurturing men in touch with their ‘feminine selves’; all the while still believing there was a ‘perfect being’ for us somewhere out there.
    I agree with your comments about young people taking it slowly; “enjoying the tension, the drama, the longing.” Is there anything more erotic than the forbidden? Don’t we all remember the first touch? The first kiss? Haven’t we heard about way back when, when just the glimpse of an ankle could send a man into ecstasy?
    One of the story lines of the book I am currently reading addresses this same topic – seventeen year olds discovering themselves and one another. He perceives himself as dorky. She perceives herself as an outsider. She looks at him as an adonis; he sees her as aphrodite.
    How long do we search for perfection in another’s eyes? Even after we find it, once the adulation becomes pedestrian, do we search for it once again in another’s eyes? Do we, once again, desire the fairy tale all over? As women, are we programmed to expect a saviour? As men, do we need someone to save, only to prove to ourselves we can conquer the terrified feelings of inadequacy?
    You write of the book as being fun; impossible to put down once you began reading. That is why we read – to be transported. Yes, we are aware which of the iconic story lines we are exposed to. And in the back of our minds, we extrapolate that story line to our lives – perhaps we should just enjoy the ride. Perhaps I will read Twilight after all????

  2. CountessZ says:

    Ramona, you are so wonderful. Your observations–all of them–are spot on. And your so eloquently phrased questions are the same ones that have been floating around and around in my head.

    As to your first point regarding the dichotomy of the ages–while I do think there are certainly a greater number of strong, inspiring, independent female characters out there for girls to admire and love today, one only needs to look as far as the Disney Princess empire to see that we are still raising young girls to daintily wait in pretty dresses for their prince charming to show up and rescue them. And in the end, these girls are still going to have to deal with the realities of actual relationships and the need to be able to save yourself. Even Enchanted, which was supposed to throw some of those silly conventions on their ear, still has a flighty, flakey, well-dressed princess who gets saved by a more dimensional “prince,” rather than the generic and dull one from her cartoon fantasy world. She stays in the “real world” with her new man and starts a business making princess dresses for little girls… I’m not saying that she has to become a lawyer or wear pant suits and shun the company of men. But who is she outside of her longing for love?

    I really think the ultimate problem here is not even so much one of gender and our roles in relationships, although that certainly is a huge factor, it is about seeking that sense of approval and validation from another person–from a source outside of yourself. This is such a fleeting feeling and when the bloom of love is off the rose (and you settle into the more pedestrian aspects of a relationship), that is when the insecurities and our own personal inability to see and love ourselves rears its ugly head. If you don’t love you, nobody can save you from that. And thus are so many relationships doomed to fail.

    I have far too strong a romantic streak to do away with the “saving” element of love. I mean, love saved me in many ways–but not in the ways I had expected. In love we save each other and save ourselves all the time. It’s a lot of work. There is nothing dainty about it and you can’t just wait around. Being saved and saving someone else requires very active participation. And then, sometimes, it just isn’t right. It doesn’t work. The fit is bad. Isn’t that saving yourself to admit that? Isn’t that saving each other to walk away?

    I really want to get other people’s impressions of what is going on in this book, because I think that is actually happening here is actually more mutual. Bella is helping Edward discover a whole new aspect to existence, she is changing his life and his world, as much as she tells us he is changing hers. She has opinions, makes decisions, and is far more level-headed than Edward seems capable of being. And again, this story is totally being told through her eyes. I have to keep reminding myself of that.

    And at the end of the day, all the analysis and everything aside, it was the emotional experience that I will take away with me. And I did enjoy the ride. Immensely. If you get around to reading it I would love to hear your thoughts and observations.

  3. kaizerin says:

    Ooh, you wonderful women and your fascinating conversation! I’m sorry I ran off to New York before engaging in this discussion, but I assure you it echoed around in my head while I was away. I managed to be completely unaware of this book until you wrote about it, CZ, and I see why the cover drew you in–intriguing! Issues of the target demographic aside (for the moment), it sounds like it’s right up my alley. I love a good vampire romance, and I love a book that sweeps you along, compelling you to read and immersing you in its world. It’s definitely going on the Must Mooch list.

    But that’s me, and I’m all grown up, with a firm sense of self and excellent boundaries. I can dip into wild princess fantasies without damaging my chances for happiness and fulfillment in the real world. Let me conjure up a bright-but-impressionable tweenage daughter and think about how I’d feel about it…

    From the way you described it, this sounds like it would be a great opportunity to explore issues of sexuality, awareness, and responsibility. Maybe you could draw out the themes explicitly, depending on the age of the girl and comfort levels, but you could also get at some interesting and complicated ideas without coming right out and talking about sex–which might make the daughter more comfortable, and therefore more communicative. I’ve never been the mom in one of those situations, but I’ve sure been the daughter; Ramona wanted so badly for us to be able to discuss sexual matters openly and maturely, and most of the time, I was just too darned embarrassed, despite her totally non-judgmental attitude. (So, having been stymied even with the most open and understanding of mothers, I can’t even imagine how impossible it must be to try to discuss sex with a mom who is anxious/repressed/judgmental.) And yet, it’s such a crucial topic for mothers to communicate with daughters about–so much gets wrapped up in our sexuality: body image, self-esteem, boundary issues, mental and physical health issues, etc. Can anything mess a person up so profoundly as negative formative sexual experiences? And that’s not even considering the life-altering (and life-threatening!) potential consequences. And yet…you can’t get all heavy and scary and hellfire-damnation-pox-n-plague on the topic, because you want her to grow up to someday enjoy a healthy, fulfilling sex life. So even if the message of the book isn’t quite what you want to get across, it opens a door to discuss the topic. Besides, my imaginary daughter is smart enough to enjoy the parts of the book that work for her and reject the messages that don’t. And so is yours. And if a percentage of the teenage girl population out there ISN’T that smart, well, this book isn’t their biggest worry, and they’re getting worse messages than “Hold off.”

    Now, as to the Rescue Me Princess fantasies…sigh, yes. Even those of us whose Second-Wave Feminist single mommies did their utter best to raise us free of traditional gender expectations are still susceptible to notions of being swept off our feet and carried away to a castle to live happily ever after. Even though we know it’s best if get an education and learn marketable skills and earn our own money and save for our own retirements, and anyway, those poufy dresses are really adorable to look at, but much less fun to try to manage modern life in. And don’t even get me started on those ridiculously impractical glass slippers.

    I think you have it exactly right when you say, “In love we save each other and save ourselves all the time. It’s a lot of work. There is nothing dainty about it and you can’t just wait around.” Yep, yep, and yep. In a really good, balanced partnership, you take turns saving each other, and sometimes, you step in and save yourself. You don’t expect your partner to do it all for you, but you don’t have to do it all yourself, either. You give and you take, and the mark of a truly good relationship is each partner feels like they’re getting more than they’re giving. There’s no “right” way to conduct a relationship—each couple finds a point of balance that works for both of them. If you’re both happy and fulfilled, and your relationship lets you both grow as you need to, then it works. I think the important part is not letting romantic notions lock you into a template of romance that doesn’t really work for you. There’s all kinds of princes out there, and if you’re only keeping an eye out for a studly guy on a white steed, you’re going to overlook the fantastically supportive, emotionally attuned, funny, smart, shy guy who’s really going to treat you like a princess.

  4. CountessZ says:

    Good points all, Kai. As always, I’m right there with you. Indulging in the story as a fantasy seems to be precisely what I was doing, even if my analytical brain was trailing along and collecting specimens of my thoughts and feelings for later analysis and categorization. I hadn’t exactly thought of it in those terms, but I like that a lot. Fantasy is important!

    I also agree that the best part–the benefit and what makes all the work worth it–of being in a relationship is that we don’t have to do it all on our own. We can rely on the other person. This is something I’ve had a hard time adjusting to. The messages I got growing up were more of the “You can only rely on yourself” variety and the “Thou shalt have no needs in a relationship” kind. I’d been taking care of myself (and others) for all of my life when Corvus came along. I had no reliable or appealing examples of what a relationship should or could look like, so I had to make a lot up as I went along. Like everyone else I have this weird hodgepodge of images from movies, books, television, music, and real life to contend with. In the end, it’s easiest just to ditch them all and do what works for you. I can tell you, it’s been a strange, amazing, wonderful, and sometimes scary ride. And I feel beyond lucky every single day.

    One thing I will say for this book is that Meyer does not seem to be criticizing or condemning sexuality. On the contrary, it feels more like a celebration of the burgeoning awareness of sexuality. And while there is a cautionary element–be careful, don’t move too fast–overall it feels more like a message of “savor this time, don’t waste it.” That, to me, is an altogether excellent message for young women and men alike. Enjoying every aspect of sex seems much more likely to lead to a fulfilling adult sex life. And also, while Edward is overwhelmingly attracted to Bella (as a teenage boy would be), he really does respect her. And he loves her. I also like that he is taking a lead role in putting the brakes on, no matter how difficult it is.

    Kai, I have a copy of the book I would be more than happy to send you. A friend’s wife is reading it at the moment, but she is tearing through it, so I imagine I’ll have it back soon. I can put it in with the next comic shipment. BTW–we’re picking up the latest Buffy this weekend!

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