About ten years ago, when Twilight by Stephanie Meyer came out in mass paperback, a friend loaned me a copy telling me that it wasn’t your average “chick lit”, that it was actually pretty good. A read a few chapters, and meh. I wasn’t into it. The girl meets boy plot seemed contrived, the prose just a bit too standard for a Gothic vampire story. Well, it appears I was wrong because as we all know, the book and series became a phenomenon. As a reader and a writer, I am curious (despite resisting it for years) to try to find out why.
I admit I didn’t go in cold. Like Harry Potter, you can have never read a word of text or watched a frame of any of the films, and still know the stories through environmental osmosis. I made that up, there is probably a much better term for it.
So it was with Twilight. I knew all about Bella the teenage girl transplanted from sunny Arizona to misty Washington state. I knew she met Edward, a vampire seemed perpetually doomed to an eternity of high school bio class and that they fall in love—I bet he aces his tests by now. It’s cheap to make fun of this book, and it reveals a certain level of jealousy many of us feel at its success. So, as I read, I tried to clear my mind of any preconceived ideas and just experience the story fresh.
I bought myself a nice hardback cover edition on eBay and went to town. I read about 100 pages a night, and I can’t say I ever reached that level of absorption where I was so into it I had to force myself, at 2 a.m., to mark the page and finally go to sleep. It was more like a homework assignment. I studied it, trying to crack the code of its success, rather than getting swept up in the love story that riveted millions of readers. Despite my pregame rituals, I went into it with far too much meta on my plate.
The prose is adequate, but very basic for a Gothic novel. The moments of scene setting in the sweeping Washington forest landscape are few and far between. And the first person narrative often reads like a teenager’s diary entry: I took down a box of cereal from the cabinet. I poured the milk. I tied back my hair. (not direct quotes, but you get the idea). The best scene in the book is the one on the beach at La Push when Jacob* reveals that the mysterious and glamorous Cullens are actually a coven of vampires, and Bella realizes that she has fallen irreversibly in love with one of them. I imagine a young reader going into the story cold would have experienced a frightening thrill at that moment. I daresay I almost did as well.
I finished the book in a few days. I enjoyed it, but, perhaps because I didn’t find myself seduced by the Byronic Edward—I was rooting more for Bella to get the hell away from that sparkly sadist—it just didn’t pull me in. But I’m sure I would have loved it if I had read it at fifteen, and had greedily eaten up every subsequent book in the series. So there you have it.
Love it or hate, Twilight resonated with readers, even (according to the Wikipedia page) necessitated a short psychology film warning young women against illusion based relationships. Ha! Good luck with that.
Perhaps this is similar to the the phenomenon known as Werther Fever, an epidemic of suicides among young romantics in 1774 after the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe.
Apparently there are college courses taught on the Twilight phenomenon. My advice is to save your money and sign up for the Goethe class instead. The book is certainly worth a read, but not, in my humble opinion, any serious scholarship. The secret of its success is rather simple.
People, young people especially, love a good tragic romance. And Twilight, for whatever reason, dug its teeth into that desire and bit down hard, sucking out the essence in the course of four plus books, multiple films, and landfills worth of crappy merchandise till the corpse was drained and marble white.
*Note to authors, don’t name one character Jacob and another one Jasper; don’t name one character Edward and another one Edmund, unless you’re William Shakespeare.