I put off reading the Twilight series for a long time. If it had gone away instead of seeping into American culture, I probably would have skipped it. I’m not above reading uber-popular pop fiction, I just happen to prefer magic and dragons to vampires and werewolves. I read the first Sookie Stackhouse book because I like True Blood, but it turns out I like watching the attractive actors on HBO more than I care about the story. I honestly just don’t care about Sookie on the page. But Anna Paquin? I find Anna Paquin completely fascinating. So, there’s your proof that I do not consider myself above vampires. Books about other kinds of magic just tend to be more complicated–an author usually has to explain how this magic works, how it’s used, who gets to use it, etc. But with vampires, what’s to explain? Not alive but not dead. Drink blood. Mostly bad, a couple good ones. Etc. Not since Buffy has a vampire held my attention, and I have yet to hear anyone claim that Twilight is well-written enough to merit a read for the sake of its prose.
But it won’t go away. Peggy Orenstein analyzes the book and its heroine, Bella Swan, in her book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Planned Parenthood has a safe sex campaign featuring vampires released in time for the release of the next film. And then there’s the fact that Bella is pregnant in the previews for the newest film. That finally piqued my interest enough to read it (yes, I really am that baby crazy). It won’t go away, I thought, so I might as well know what it is. If “Jacob” and “Edward” are going to be shorthand for something or symbols for “types,” I want to know what for. Plus, what is the deal with that weird pregnancy? (Don’t tell me!)
I’m just about half-way through the second book, and I’ll probably finish the series by the end of the week. I won’t be buying any posters or replica’s of Bella’s jewelry, but I understand the roots of the Twilight obsession. Stephenie Meyer is not good at prose (“twilight” was the best metaphor you could come up with? really?) but she can create a heck of a scene. The emotion in these books reaches straight into my gut.
I know that I’m being manipulated–I expected to be manipulated. I knew going in that Bella was going to be an Every Girl, designed to reminds me of my own adolescence. I certainly felt too ordinary in high school and remember feeling invisible all too sharply. I also remember the wildly mixed emotions that came with getting any attention for any reason. It sucked to be ignored, and it sucked to get dirty looks for “hogging attention.” Too pretty was bad and ugly was worse. In writing Bella Swan, Meyer hit that nail squarely on the head. (If she gets to be lazy with her metaphors, then so do I.)
But here’s where my goodwill comes from: Meyer respects the intensity of a girl’s feelings. The first book brought back a lot of the emotions I felt during the time in my life between when I met Nathan and when we decided to get married. The completely euphoric moments when I felt more love than I had ever felt before and the terrifying realization that I could no longer picture my life without him.
The second book is taking me back to my first broken heart; when that man promised me love and then abruptly left me, I cried so hard I vomited. I had to bribe myself with promises of cookies from the Hungarian Pastry Shop just to leave my Barnard dorm room. I got a B in English! And Stephenie Meyer has respect for that. She doesn’t laugh at a girl’s broken heart, even if she got her heart broken by doing everything everyone told her not to do. Like Bella, I ignored warnings. I, too, told myself that I knew him better than they did. I imagined ridiculous scenarios that would allow us to be together forever when the extremely temporary nature of this arrangement was completely obvious to everyone else. It makes me laugh now, but I still wince, too. The pain I felt was real. So was the heady joy. And I felt it again and again. I made the same mistake again and again. I don’t wish I had done anything differently.
Why is this series so popular? Because it is earnest. It may use some pretty terrible metaphors to accomplish its task, but it succeeds in expressing just how epic our prosaic romances feel to us. The first man to break my heart was not the first man I loved. My first love took his time in stringing me along before rejecting me. And you know what feels really good? Reading a book that takes that seriously. This book understands why I still remember his smell and why that memory still puts me right back in mini van he drove when he was home for Christmas from college; I pretended I wasn’t cold even though I was shivering, tried to will the drive to last longer, tried to come up with anything to say to make him sit in my father’s driveway with me for just one more minute. To this day, I have nightmares that involve coming thisclose to that same love and getting rejected all over again. It’s been over ten years since I fell for that boy and more than five since he stopped speaking to me, but I still have the same dreams. We couldn’t be together because who knows why? Too young? Too stupid? Too cruel? All of the above? And I enjoy reliving it all through Twilight because it is just so damn satisfying that his stand-in is a vampire who is literally cold as ice. The series is not self-aware. It’s not clever. It is entirely in earnest, and I find that endearing.
It doesn’t matter to me if books three and four hit me in the same visceral way. It doesn’t matter that I probably won’t think about any of these characters or plots once I’ve finished the books. I almost never leave a book unfinished (and I am starting to think that these really are just one long book). What matters is that it is so easy to project my adolescent self onto Bella that all of the terribly ordinary details of my own first love, first heartbreak, first rebound relationship become, for just a little while, an epic saga.